Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sextidi, 5 Messidor, Année 215

Tête à Tête

Lately, I have been taking Gaulish odysseys in the mist of starting up a new blog, attending to required reading, lamenting over an unfinished field work assignment, surviving a job interview in the South Bronx, going to my survival job, battling a predatory financial institution and visiting that infamous hip-hop magazine where I set my eyes on a friend I have not seen in 14 years. Then he was a bald music critic/editor. Now he looks like a curly haired surfer, but some how just as young and spry despite a childlike girth that must be chasing him into his 40's.

I have not been blogging because I have been clumsily wanking my way through a French grammar review that is doing much to recharge my memory, but still leaves the language as a literal one for me and not a verbal one (which is the exact opposite of German, when I look into my deepest heart). There is something about the way the words are represented versus how they are spoken that is cause for deep concentration. Spelling in French is like walking through a minefield. Syntax seems easy enough once one can remember that what one says may be represented orthographically by 3 or 4 apostrophes, 3 accent marks and a circumflex.

The other thing that has been pulling me away from my blog has been all this New Orleans/Haitian bonding that is happening in my personal life. Chief among my crescent shaped cyber world nexus has been Professor Zero. For the past couple of days we have been in a joint diatribe of all things perilous about both academic and amorous life. Flirting, Lacan, political double speak, making a fetish of the oppressed and the different forms of Spanish spoken in the Americas have all been the soup du jour at one point or another. It has been "Oh, so middle class" in certain respects, as we look across the Gulf of Mexico into Venezuela, or into the bayou brackish waterways of young Cajuns studying English, or talking about the almost frozen Southern mentality that still clings to the first Reformation in a Afro-Anglo creole ritual that turns Cero and I into silent monkeys, able only to vulgarly gesticulate to one another our desire to add a red pepper to an iron clad Dutch oven. Thanks Cero.

According to American Zombie's blog the collapse of New Orleans' social services and fabric have brought much heartache to the residents and I imagine much unwanted affirmation for many Gulf Coast communities that they are not really a part of “America”, just located within its boundaries. The feeling that "we are different down here" is mumbled in Cajun and spicey versions of English, all dialects simply chalking up this current Bush era of neglect as a continuation of the same ole same ole (In fact I have an aunt that can't stand to have such conversations about Laura and George, it makes her physically disgusted.). Gentrification may just pave over the entire city devouring the old Creole houses. It seems to me that this is the beginning of the second American invasion which the master narrative has set to save the city. And if this New Orleans is to be Disneyfied through privatization; then, the villains in the eyes of the prince's white horse are the poor and the blacks. Nagin, who is suppose to be the prime custodian of New Orleans’ citizenry, and promote models of civic duty and responsibility is the darkest of wizards I suspect. Regardless of which side of the mirror you stand, New Orleans has been neglected, and its incestuous politics have disenfranchised the population to the point that they are now at the mercy of the sea. I just wonder how long this will transpire, and if the wild crime wave will become worse before it becomes better.

Nouvelle Orleans the lifestyle is free. Its history is un-replicated in any other latitude this far North; but, maybe all of this reading and speaking of about the Creole world is a certain sign of its physical demise in the United States. Maybe it is spirit converting concrete to fable and myth, ensuring its survival in some linguistic double helix, which may be unlocked like a flies tell-tale proteins in a lump of amber. Or, maybe it is the sign of a rebirth, a marching return by all of Louisiana's descendants to claim the bon vivant mantle of a grandfather who made white liquor in a secret spot just beyond a moss bordered pasture or an adventurous grandmother who danced in red on top of the pews one Saturday afternoon when no one was looking, whistling a jig catching a spirit with a striked match. We are at the crossroads. We are at the cross.

And so . . . that is what happened to me a couple of nights ago when I could not sleep and my ancestors kicked me out of my bed again (this is becoming a more than perennial occurrence). While channel surfing, I thought it beyond serendipitous that I caught part of a documentary on New Orleans music and culture called Make it Funky. I saw footage of the Mardi Gras Indians and Allen Toussaint before I returned to my lumpy bed.

From Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, to Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in the Cathedral, to a sweet woman named Marie from Port-au-Prince, to studying French grammar in between my hectic schedule, I feel like I am migrating towards some other world. It constantly beats underneath the floor boards, beckoning me to loosen a couple of planks and descend through a hoodoo worm hole, to emerge in a more gentle and relaxed Atlantis.

“Am I comfortable in English?" is an unspoken question in constantly in my mind and heart. Only one other person has suspected the possibility that I was born with a misplaced language in my head.



Marie, the Fortunately Misplaced Interlude

At night, I exit my job and sit under the night sky that has become summer with an unexpectedness I vaguely remember not seeing since the break between my junior and senior year of college. You just wake up one morning and there is your life and all its faults appreciated by everyone, critiqued by no one. The difference now is that I am alone. There is no need for a jacket, and the humidity has leveled off just after the buses have stopped running, so I have no problem talking to Marie for those couple of minutes before my ride comes, and before her boyfriend arrives to pick her up.

Marie is from Port-au-Prince and ten years my junior. She comes from a neighborhood in the west of that fantastical and anagogical city. Marie's voice is very deep and eloquent and her accent is off register making it hard to place. Maybe Marie is from French West Africa, maybe Reunion Island, maybe some village in Dominica or Suriname. Each movement Marie makes with her fingers, while preparing inventory, is happening with strict purpose so that her mind can wonder elsewhere, maybe it is the floral arrangement she is doing for a wedding, maybe it is a conversation with her father about a Haitian first family covered in a local Creole radio talk show. The way Marie walks is erect and alert like the school girls in Ghana or Antigua, the way Marie holds her purse is in the manner of a woman of means.

At night we both sit on the same grey brick embankment that holds mulch and shrubs that are eclipsed by the boring grey structure of the storehouse. We then continue the small talk that we started days back when I uttered bad French to her, and she giggled. Later she confessed that she spoke French only in school, and felt fluent only in Kreyol. She also confessed that she does not read the written Kreyol with its li's and k's, they are extraterrestrial to her. "I spoke French in school, Kreyol everywhere else and studied Spanish and Latin, though I do not see why we had to take Latin." she said to me in a mass of jumbled boxes and women chattering. “The Kreyol I speak from Port-au-Prince is different from everywhere else.” she continued, like a city girl ripped to the suburbs of a Northern land.

I brought a book on Afro-Creole Louisiana and we studied the songs together with great interest as she told me where the words were different in Haitian dialect, in representation, form and cadence. She stared at it like a puzzle whispering to me later that she doesn’t read much, just French romance novels. I sipped on my watered down red soda and took her confession to heart, books make life very complicated.

Each day our conversations would become more intimate in details. Because I did not want to talk to her about her Haitian-American boyfriend who does not speak Kreyol, I talked to her about Haiti. "How do you say Aribonte?” I asked in the middle of her impromptu lesson concerning the regions and provinces of Haiti. "L'Artibonte" she corrected me, but she told me that no one says that, they just say "Bonte". We talked about Jacmal one day. She said that she loved it somehow, though she has never been there. She said that she is going to go there next time she returns to Port-au-Prince. I told her that I had heard of it and wanted to go.

"Yes, that is where the whites are."

"Excuse me." I said

"I mean the people that are light in color. They are not white. They are beautiful."

We both laughed.

I said mélange. She said mulate. I said class. She said en masse. I spoke of Boyer and Petion. She stared. She walked away to the back room commenting on my knowledge, I told her I had few people to talk to about what I know, just academics.

Later that night, she touched on a level of violence in Haiti I could only surmise before from details in the New York Times. Her voice was of regret. "I do not believe." she said in reference to violence and the folk religion. She talked about the beauty of those that practice it in West Africa and other ceremonies here in America, but she also hinted at the violence of other communities in her homeland. She touched on the prejudice she has felt against her person due to her "perceived" beliefs.

Our conversations often begin with the beginning of each others stories with us not telling each other the endings.

"You have not been married?" She asked. I told her "No, I have been close, but no. “I stared at the moon on this night, and Marie's voice seemed so honest and pleasant that for a split second I felt like a wounded soldier being tended too. These feelings of some sort of affection are so few and far between in my modern world of genderized power negotiation that I could not help but notice that solitude with a woman on a warm night is something that has evaded me for some time.

"What happened?" she asked, and the most extraordinary thing happened, all of my disappointments in love collapsed into one, and though I was telling her about my latest, I was truly telling her about all of them. She replies, "Don't worry, it happens." Just then my ride pulled up, and as always I leave first, saying good night, aware of her staring at me as I walk away, and I am aware that my body is communicating to her that I am leaving for some loveless limbo that is the basement underneath my father's house.

Madame Capet

Daniel Mendelsohn's astute review of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette in the November 30, 2006 issue of The New York Review of Books starts out by describing the type of woman Sofia Coppola has found fascinating enough to place at the center of all three of her movies. She is the privileged woman who finds herself in a world of foreign signs and symbols who must somehow negotiate her way out adolescence into womanhood. Some succeed and some do not (that is my assessment, but is there any way of measuring success and failure in such transitions, transition happens regardless if we 'succeed' or not). Because everything is so well written in the NYRB, I always settle into the critique with some over-arching expectancy. I feel as if I am receiving an education due to precise quotes from sources far beyond my post-colonial, handsomely erudite, and patch-worked required readings. I love to hear the writerly voice of a biographer or geologist talking about a 1930's New England mining town ravaged by copper in a well, or a 19th century émigré who must some how settle for winter at the Danish coast because of a decree viciously enforced after a czar was blown to bits.

Kirsten Dunst's performance as Marie Antoinette is by far one of the best I have seen for this time period. If there is any fault with her portrayal of Marie Antoinette, it is the eschewed context in which the director chooses to place the last Queen of France. Glenn Close's Marquese de Merteuil in Dangerously Liaison is for sure the best depiction of 18th century debauchery and female modification in all its physical and psychological baroque bondage; but, Dunst must manage a far more broad and nuisanced portrayal of Marie Antoinette. The woman was truly an invention created by the convergence of the European states. She was a rebellious teenager that tittered back and forth on the fault line that public life and the royal protocol demanded of her. Her crucifixion, ridiculed name, and slandered personality are parts of a larger world around her, and in the end the movie does not leave the audience with a greater understanding of the mob or its inciters, we are left with a cloistered soul peeled from the canvas of a painting; therefore, the audience is only able to see parts of Marie Antoinette out of context. It is due to this wavering juxtaposition of narrative success and historical failure that Coppola's flaws become a beauty mark. She doesn't want us to see it all.

The movie opens with the 14-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria (Antoine) waking up from her palace bedroom in Vienna and being summoned by her mother the Empress Maria Theresa to receive the news that she has been betrothed to the Dauphin of France Louis-Auguste. This wedding was to bind the Bourbons to the Hapsburg and bring a great European Union, which may well have been seen in the same light as the current one, in terms of diplomatic possibilities for the continent, but limited by the conflicts of the time.

From there, Coppola’s film takes us down a winding staircase of "this" reality, but does not give the audience the proper perspective on the expectations of this marriage. Coppola's tome of reference, Marie Antoinette, The Journey by Antonia Frazer, deserves a close reading, simply to put into perspective Coppola's artistic choices. On the surface these choices are creatively sound and at points ingenious. Marianne Faithful as Maria Therese is perfect. Her voice is so deep and dark, with a placement of words that is so precise that one is given the impression that the Empress never speaks unless every syllable is thought out. Faithful impresses on her empress's opulent vocal chords the power to manifest into the physical world whatever she conveys. Absolute power is generative. If you don't want it, then don't say it.

Molly Shannon as Madame Victoire and Shirley Henderson as Madame Sophie embolden the court of Versailles with all the sly gossip and petite intrigue that in many respects just turns into a family joust under the hideous insignia of "the French" court. These castings were also surprising choices. Shannon and Henderson are slightly out of place in their jumbled English. One cannot help but think that the slide remarks in French must have been more cruel and complicated to decipher in the gluttonous ennui of court. Again, this is magic, because the cruel bridge club remarks strike up the condescending pettiness of their rank, which in the end is without power. They can do nothing but gawk and draw lines in the sand.

Judy Davis as Comtesse du Noailles is another superb touch that garnered a great height in the plot and portrayal precisely because Coppola decided not to develop the Comtesse any further into the story. The Comtesse du Noailles was the First Lady of Honor to Marie-Antoinette and nicknamed Madame Etiquette. In the movie she stands at the French-Austrian border ready to bang the young Archduchess Antoine of Austria into a Dauphine with a stern lip. In another scene, Comtesse du Noailles explains the customary dressing ritual performed by the dauphine’s ladies-in-waiting as prescribed by Versailles. Davis curtsies with a dip and slight sway in the back, demonstrating the strain of the morning salutations; but, with a tight rhythmic arch that steals the scene and reminds one of an Alvin Ailey choreographed step, or the relinquished pain of a tired seamstress, or Hagar quenching her thirst at Zam Zam (I wanted to scream Work Bitch!).

Other actors are cast with an eye towards perfection. Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry is haunting. She is callous and uncouth, but ravishing in her exotic feathers and velvet dresses that weigh her down in ill bought prestige as the nimble Hapsburg child runs rings around her on the velvet ropes and catwalks of the palace. And Rose Byrne as the duchesse de Polignac is a head turner, as the strong vivacious proxy den mother of the Antoinette krew.

Coppola is fixated on recording life in Versailles and in many ways that is the best part of the film. She fleshes out the beautiful prison the palace is in a scene where Marie Antoinette ascends the steps from the garden to the doors of Versailles to resume her court life. The celluloid texture becomes wavy as if bombarded by the radiation of black asphalt. It is a metaphor, as the glitter of the Sun King becomes shockingly brilliant and the reality that life under the guise of rulership is just that -- a guise, exhausting, asphyxiating and debilitating, leaving the young Queen constantly parched and short of breath.

In order to exhale, Marie Antoinette's choices are clothes, parties and endlessly jovial hours with her girlfriends. Here we have some greater understanding of her choices, since decapitation and centuries of degradation have turned her into a neutral allusion to the uber-feminine like Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and Marilynn Monroe. Her exorbitant spending and decadent lifestyle are shown with great care by Coppola. And to watch the scenes involving shoes, wigs, gambling parties, masquerades, champagne, hemp and the lustful giggles of hide and seek is to watch a PG-13 version of Bob Guccione's Caligula.

Marie-Antoinette was not the first fashionista, but in terms of public figures, she was the first to carry a brand image as a both a debutant and a consumer. So in many ways, the marriage of pop music to the film is again an ornate and achronistic scarification. Historically, there is no way that the choices can fit, but in many ways, it enhances the scenes. As Marie-Antoinette and her husband return to Versailles after a night in Paris, the Dauphine’s hand is extended outside of the window as the northern light casts a shadow in the carriage. The scenary of the carriage ride and the Dauphine's extended hands are elongated by Bow-Wow-Wow's version of Fool's Rush In. The first time I saw this scene I thought it unwise to "waste" time on such a giddy female afterglow when history is marching full speed towards our very neutral hero and heroine. The second time I saw it, I really did see the beauty and mastery of Coppola's music and image, of the post-adolescent princess and New Wave vocalist co-habituating in the misty early dawn. Then cut, the King is sick, and the impending responsibilities of being sovereign fall into their laps. It all made them seem like fat cats feed to be slaughtered, pampered to be torn to bits, but in the meantime there are loves and leisure . . . and music.

But outside of this beauty was a corruptible future that is hard to grasp -- a world where everything would be turned upside down. The days of the week would be re-arranged into intervals of ten, the churches would be ripped open with looters turning chalices into pure gold, and the masses would participate in the first public hysteria induced by the fermented tit of ideology. As quiet as the secret is keep, life, liberty and fraternity are the first songs of our theoretical age. In my high school we looked at the Thermidorians with a condescending tone of folly. It was in the Bible belt, I was an American, to dismiss God and the European church where it all started (Protestantism), was a natural reflex.

In my opinion the complications of the times are still loss to Americans. To Coppola the tragedy and mass killings of the French Royals is more than compensated for by the palace, the carriage and the rows of slippers. Will our American imagination every construct a Europe that is different, that sees beyond its overly powdered noses? It all is represented so clearly by a conversation I had with a German friend. She talked very excitedly about a long lost American cousin and his family visiting her in Stuttgart. They were aghast to see that their family did not own a castle.

Foreshadowing was somewhat surpringly absent in this film concerning the last Queen of France, a figment of the state who was born Maria Antonia, lived as Marie Antoinette and died as Widow Capet, Prisoner 280. Nor in the performances do we have a sense of the mobs’ wavering and finally being saddened at the beheading of Madame du Barry, who was in hysterics on the day she was taken to Madame Guillotine. There she spoke the famous last words “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment” (Just one moment, Mr. executioner, one brief moment). Nor do we have an idea of the eventual fate of other characters such as the duchesse de Polignac who dies of breast cancer shortly after hearing about the death of Marie-Antoinette, with Victoire suffering the same fate years later, both of them forced into exile.

The chapel scenes where the Dauphine endures compulsory services with princesse Lambelle can be thought of as a foreshadowing of martyrdom. In real life the princesse Lambelle dies at the hands of the mob. She is raped and bludgeoned to death with hammer blows to the skull; her breasts are torn off and her severed head is paraded on a pike in front of the window of Marie-Antoinette at the Temple. Her loyalty to the Queen was her downfall; she refused to denounce the monarchy, but embraced the ideas of equality. Even the comic performance of Judy Davis as Comtesse de Noailles is sullen in the knowledge that in true life de Noailles went to the guillotine together with her husband, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and niece on June 27, 1794.

Such a mystical and violent experience is hidden under powdered wigs and chromatic filters that give us pastel almonds and champagne dipped raspberries in abundance. Even the ending is golden, with a wonderful shot of the quirkily handsome Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI re-assuring the queen that the rising sun is not part of a dream. One would assume that a fantastic phase of her life ended. When it comes to this simple closing scene, I agree with Daniel Mendelsohn’s observation concerning this beautiful game of Hollywood indie film house as practiced by Coppola and the murderous historical reality:” You’d never guess this that men’s lives – those of the Queen’s guards – were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris.”

Months later the woman who launched haute couture would have her head served to the roaring public like a sacred calabash. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette deals with the girl but forgets the woman, and barely highlights the slanderous habits of the revolution, the masses, the court and our inaccurate allusions. The film is a breath of fresh air, but strangely drifts to an enchanted kingdom that only manifest itself in 80's New Wave love songs.

Paris

Paris Hilton would have been my natural casting selection for Marie Antoinette if she could act her way out of a Frosted Flake commercial. It is like Stephen Spielberg wanting Tina Turner to play Celie in The Color Purple; their experiences are a perfect match. Tina said no because it brought back too many memories. Paris Hilton is currently too busy living the life of Marie-Antoinette.

Hilton is royalty, unreasonably beautiful, and seems to inspire ridicule in the highest sense of the word. Her excesses and poor choices in dealing with the public follow the doomed dauphine as if she is practically slipping her feet into the snowy footprints of a princess lost in the snow. And what she has done to change fashion, notions of womanhood and public life may be noted with greater congruency by historians in the next century; but, I know that the cosmic umbilical cord has brought us Marie again. And, if we can not phantom 18th century notions of mob rule, it is only because we are not looking into the mirror.

The arrest, release, and re-arrest of the heiress are our Tower, our Temple, and our death procession. Robespierre took 3 hours to reach the platform in order to greet Louisette, during which he was probably pummeled with rotten vegetables and fish. In our cyber age, Paris Hilton was speed away in a matter of minutes to her vaulted room, but we poured our yellow watered basins and spat out our globs of cloudy saliva onto her image for many more hours than Robespierre. We have removed her crown and declared our intolerance to transgressions that could only have been surmised about people in the 18th century. Today all of a princess's debauchery is filmed and dried in the sun to the point that even Madame Hilton's shaved genitals appear before us like an announcement for a sale at Norstrom's. We do no have to pour through an archive of first hand accounts or royal medical records to decipher her dietary and social habits. What luck, in the 21st century, this Marie Antoinette Re-Incarnate does not have the common sense to treat her forays as a masquerade, she is bold face and everyone sees; so, there is no difference between the transgression and the public humiliation. A guillotine would just confuse the situation more.

Un Petit Moment, Madame Louisette

Unfortunately the ending of this piece is chopped off. I wanted to talk more about Alejo Carpentier’s Explosion in the Cathedral which deals with the historic events of the French Revolution and their influence on the New World. That will take up too much time because I must finish packing up my things and head back out to the Bronx this afternoon; and, after that I must get ready for more work. I am completing two graduate courses in seven weeks, plus student teaching, so time is dwindling down to one blog entry a week I am afraid.

Lately I have been accused of being too European in focus, which may or may not mean that I am not Afro-centric enough (cultural people) I can’t decide. It is starting to bother me for some strange reason. Well, the reason is not that strange, I have experienced this before when writing for hip-hop magazines. Some editorial staffs just thought I just didn't fit. Now it seems that with African-American culture vultures, my delving into France does not signify a Creole World or Créolité, it harkens to the Old World vogueing femme. I remember one other fellow graduate student saying to me years ago, that the people in the black pack at Infamous University just did not understand, nor did they want to except that people of color willed a certain level of privilege and power in Louisiana. She said this and just walked off the stage after getting her degree. I guess I am having the same sort of experience . . . again. If I said that I was trying to get back to Africa, I think I would have a much different reaction. I guess the Antilles and the Gulf of Mexico are just too close.

The cultural wars are always raging in one way or another, but I must say I have evolved enough to want to discuss the suffering of people regardless of race. Two hundred years ago, during the Thermidorian Reaction, people used go to the cemeteries for balls where the only pre-requisite for admittance was to have lost a family member. Men wore shirts with material that sometimes covered their heads, women adorned red ribbons around their necks. If a man fancied a woman he would signal to her with a finger motion slitting his throat, the woman would react by bowing her head. There is something so beautiful and sad about that use of non-verbal language. To acquiesce to desire while dancing on top of headless kin is divine. And to think that with the guillotine that uncertainty was shipped to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, French Guiana, Suriname and anywhere else French dominance had irrigated a little earth. And that is where I will pick up with Carpentier and his beautiful master piece some time in the near-ever-after. I am sorry, I have to go.

5 comments:

Cero said...

A.m.a.z.i.n.g. post!!! I have to study it, see the movie, etc. Still have to reread Explosion in a Cathedral. Meanwhile still have to go to Haiti. Jacmel is also supposed to be one of the least deforested areas, I hear. But I want to go up to Cap Haitien and see everything that appears in The Kingdom of This World.
And speak Creole. I also cannot read it spelled with all of those k's, it's a real challenge.

Littlemilk said...

Thanks. This entry took the most time of them all, between writing and editing it . . . and it is still not finished. But, I think it is the beginning of something large in my mind.

Professor Zero said...

Well, I'm studying it, it is meaty -
and I love the title!!!

Cero said...

Small point: this is why I also love NYRB:

"I feel as if I am receiving an education due to precise quotes from sources far beyond my post-colonial, handsomely erudite, and patch-worked required readings. I love to hear the writerly voice of a biographer or geologist talking about a 1930's New England mining town ravaged by copper in a well, or a 19th century émigré who must some how settle for winter at the Danish coast because of a decree viciously enforced after a czar was blown to bits."

Andey said...

Professor Cero was a good referent for my deals as well.