Today, dear readers, a word about a lit’ry event this evening, and a recapitulation of cinematic occurrences involving the French over the weekend.
First, though I know it’s last minute, there’s a reading this evening at 6 p.m. at Chop Suey Books by three writers, two of whom are fairly well known here and an intriguing guest.
The visitor is Janaka Stucky, who’ll be making the stop to present from his latest collection of poetry, The Truth Is We Are All Perfect. He’s joined by writer Valley Haggard and poet/novelist Allison Titus, whose splendidly eerie The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To with Fire should’ve gotten mentioned here a while ago.
But guests, first. Stucky is a poet and small press publisher currently on tour with his latest, which is out through the Third Man Books, the publishing department of Jack White’s recording label. This is for sure not to be the usual there-will-be-time-to-wear-my-trousers-rolled style presentation.
Titus’ Arsonist’s Song came along at a moment in my reading list at about the same time as a wrote about Michele Young-Stone’s recent Above Us Only Sky. The latter novel traces the intergenerational history of women in a family who carry an unusual genetic trait: They are born with wings. A major character in the Titus book is a scientist whose gloss of methodic experimentation covers just how crazy he is. The Doctor wants to attach working wings on a person that make the individual capable of flight. The town schlmiel who falls into the Doctor’s plans has his own problems, not the least of which is a propensity toward arson. Amid these two is the moody Vivian Foster, who is house-sitting for various people while figuring what to do with her life now that her adventuring husband has gone missing. She rehearses in her imagination various scenarios of her own demise. Titus' language is persuasive and gorgeous and compelling, rendering into reality these complicated people.
Now, upstairs at Chop Suey is an installation I want to give overdue mention to because it is closing this week. The Memorial Library of Kenton J. Stanfield , curated by Ghostprint Gallery director Thea Duskin and Skull-a-Day artist Noah Scalin . They were assisted by the irrepressible Phil Ford and the legendary Alane Cameron Miles.
The exhibit is billed as a recreation of the library from the demolished house of Richmond's almost forgotten world-traveling scientific adventurer Stanfield, who disappeared during one of his many journeys.
Finally, I want to give recognition to this past weekend's 23rd French Film Festival at the Byrd Theatre.
Organizers/founders Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick, professors of French literature, culture and film studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond respectively, started this event in the basement of VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library. It’s grown into what is actually four kinds of festivals: a conference on cinematic technique and approaches in the form of master classes and symposia; screenings of contemporary French films that may not arrive in Richmond for another year if at all; a collection of historical and classic films, some of which you might’ve seen in a theater 20 or more years ago (like The Return of Martin Guerre) but also revelations from the vaults of the Cinémathèque Française and finally, a celebration of the short-form, live-action and animation. The shorts are offered on Saturday and Sunday mornings and worth an early rising to see.
The shorts are curated from some 300 films, and so what we get here in Richmond rarely have complete flops. Here, we saw strangers on a train — in Emilie Noblet’s TGV, a new female train conductor, Alex, takes a detour after witnessing farewell kissing that sort of reminded me of the opening of Betty Blue but clothed.
Then there was a documentary, La Fille du Rail, by Eva Sehet, who went to Mali to turn her lens on the condition of gold miners there but through circumstance instead found Alima, one of the country’s few women train drivers. Men want to
marry her, but also dissuade her from a job, which she likes and isn’t about to quit.
In a near-disorienting mirror-reflecting-mirror experience, we were also treated to a documentary about the Byrd Theatre itself by Jean Achache's The Byrd: A Love Affair, an ode to the Byrd Theatre, and actually, a valedictory for its longtime unofficial caretaker — a sextant, really — the late Miles Rudisill. Miles didn't get to hear himself coming out of the Dolby speakers reminiscing about this enduring affection for the place, yet his voice carries on there, in a feat of cinematic magic. Richmond's own well-known history writer Dean King got to be us, wandering around the place and thinking he's seeing shades from the past.
This program is one of six on renowned theaters from around the world that will air on European television; nobody knows whether the series will get brought here. The Byrd film was produced with the assistance of Richmond's Bertholet Integrated Content.
Achache also contributed to the shorts a powerful surprise titled Marcel!, in which a pair of young toughs try to persuade a Parisian gallerist to sell an old bottle holder as a readymade by Marcel Duchamp.
It hinges on a discussion of what makes something art. On the Byrd screen, it was crystal clear and splendid on 35 mm film and subtitled – not the case on YouTube.
Then came Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomatie (Diplomacy) set in a Paris hotel room on the night of Aug. 24-25, 1944, during which the German Gen. Dietrich von Chöltitz engages in an intense discussion with Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling, who wants to dissuade the Germans from flooding and burning Paris to impede the Allied advance. The film was based on a play by Cyril Gély who was present for questions. This wasn’t a rehashing of Is Paris Burning? In one
scene, German officers methodically explain to von Chöltitz that the center of the city will be destroyed and all its bridges except for Pont Neuf, the oldest, to allow German troops to go across and make a last-ditch defense on the Île de la Cité. The audience was gasping as though drowning. The operation was insane, but a military practicality, and almost happened. Of course, since then, other grand cities underwent partial or complete destruction and historic urban centers are maimed by warfare. That such crazy events don’t happen more often is perhaps the exception. A weird Richmond tangent: The German telecommunications operator, Lt. Ernst Bressensdorf, was claimed as a relative by infamous investment bilker Count Otto von Bressensdorf when I interviewed him and his wife Elena before their big fall.
Here, too, was a program of antique movies, some made during the 1890s in part as documentary and in part to see what the newfangled motion picture technology was capable of — writing with images.
The delightful Rappo sisters gave their vigorous interpretations of Slavic and Russian dances and exuded their obvious enjoyment. The busy streets and plazas also appeared, the Place de La Concorde and the Rue Royale shown with horse-driven omnibuses and lorries, bicyclists and pedestrians intermingling with apparent little regard for traffic patterns.
The men wore top hats and the women bustles, and kids waved at the camera. In a recording of a physical comedy act at a carnival, each frame hand-painted for spot color, I was less interested in what was transpiring on the stage than a woman in a painted blue skirt distracted enough from the funny business going on in front of her to turn, hand on hip, to regard with dark eyes the camera cranking away about 20 feet behind her. She was curious, somewhat smiling, but unsure of what she should show, how to react.
These films didn't so much as end but run out, and the preserved blotches and streaks remind the viewer that what was pictured is wiped away by the crush of time.
In these films, shown on the big Byrd screen, we were seeing the people at life-size, or nearly so, floating above us as in a dream; we, their future, viewing their present that is our past. That must be how it is to be a ghost and as near to time travel as is possible. I looked at these Parisians going about their daily lives and contemplated how within 15 years of these movies getting made, a world war erupted that claimed the lives of many of those men shown in the films and turned the women into industrial workers, nurses — and widows. This section ended with Chapeau du Tabarin, with a performer who made various hats from what looked to be a simple band of cloth and imitated historic figures (Napoleon, included), and types.
I admired his talent.