Wednesday, April 23, 2014
From the moment it begins with a delightful title sequence of il est minuit Paris s’éveille (At Midnight, Paris Awakes) which, while spare, colorfully illustrates its subject of the Parisian late-night cabaret of post World War II, we know we’re in for a treat. An hour later, we've traversed the rise and demise of a unique scene that ends almost like a slammed door. 

Those were the days, my friend.

When the war ended, Parisian clubs that went underground in speakeasy fashion to avoid bombs and the Germans went legit  (or mostly) and many others blossomed in particular on the Left Bank of Seine and St. Germaine-des-Prés. Some 200 “boxes of night” opened in former hardware stores and in dank basements. Some could seat just 30 people. 

But they were lively places that featured entertainers of all kinds, from mime Marcel Marceau to the antic inspired lunacy of les Fréres Jacques performance troupe. (In the linked clip above, they begin the credit sequence, in sketch about soccer players) 

But here, too, they were young and inventing themselves and their world. This is my kind of midnight in Paris — because it was real. Though it isn’t subtitled as the feature was last night at the Byrd, here 's a clip. 
Serge Gainsbourg

This was when Jacques Brél was truly alive and well and living in Paris, but also Charles Aznavour, heavy-lidded and jug-eared Serge Gainsbourg, the incomparable Juliette Gréco and the amazing bird-like Barbara. They sang out their souls and their voices, both wistful yet resigned, sometimes hopeful and other times tragic, they captured the intellectual foment and mood of their day. 

Director Yves Jeuland, mostly known for his political and historical films, spent eight years researching the film and pouring through archives to find the sounds and sights of this scene and inside the clubs named L ‘Écluse, Le Tabou and Le Milord. 

“These evenings might feature 10 to 12 acts,” Jeuland explained through the translation of festival co-organizer Peter Kirkpatrick. “They had just 8 to 10 minutes a piece.” 

This was the time of Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the Situationists and Guy de Bord and the film preservationist and art house presenter Henri Langlois. The Left Bank was smoky, boozy, intellectual and vibrant. 

By this time, Edith Piaf was a rock star, before there was such a term, and she cared little for the “existentialist singers” of these cabarets. Jeuland related how the song “I Hate Sundays” was written by Charles Aznavour and offered to Piaf, who turned it down. Gréco made a hit of the “Suicide Song” as it became known, which annoyed Piaf to the point that she recorded it, too. 

By 1968, the little clubs were considered old-fashioned and there was new popular music sweeping into the culture. One of the singers toward the end of the film remarks on how he looked around one evening and realized he didn’t want to be like any of the people in the audience who’d come for mere entertainment. He went to the club manager to quit. ”What happened?” the manager asked. “Nothing happened, “ the singer said. He left the place and never came back. 

il est minuit Paris s’éveille will soon be out on DVD. I recommend it. The French Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Byrd Theatre.
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The green eyes of French actress and director Amélie Glenn are following me all over town from posters for the 22nd Annual French Film Festival that opens today. Glenn is among the 40 or so representatives of the French cinema who are attending this weekend-long event, sponsored by the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, that takes most of a year to produce.

Organizers Peter and Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick viewed Glenn’s Jean & Béatrice as a working copy last year at Cannes. We’re getting the final cut for the first time in the United States. And it may be the only chance you get to see this film with an intriguing premise: Beatrice placed an advertisement up around town — take that, Craig’s List, the French are different — that reads, “Well-to-do young heiress, intelligent and perceptive, who has never loved anyone is seeking a man who will interest, move and seduce her. Substantial reward offered.”

The Kirkpatricks first saw Glenn in a stage play, directed by Guillaume Cotillard, younger brother of French actress Marion Cotillard, of a similar genre as Jean & Béatrice. The film is based on a Canadian one-act play by Carole Fréchette that Glenn first saw in 2010.

Her father is the eminent director and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, who has a unique connection to the city.

His great-great grandfather, William J. Glenn, was a Richmond resident, a tailor by trade, and quite long-lived (1822-1902). William Glenn served as convener for the Shockoe Hill Division of the Sons of Temperance and in that capacity, on the evening of Monday, Aug. 29, 1849, he initiated into the organization one Edgar Allan Poe, who raised his hand and vowed to remain sober. In responding to an 1899 query by sculptor and historian Edward V. Valentine, “There had been no intimation that Mr. Poe had violated his pledge before leaving Richmond in October.”

Until a couple years ago, Pierre-William Glenn was unaware of his family ties to the place that hosts the largest French-language film festival outside of France. He’ll be here, too, to present French director Dominique Benicheti’s masterwork Le Cousin Jules

The 7:10 p.m Friday screening will be a moment laden with emotion and import. The product of five years' work by Benicheti and Glenn, Le Cousin Jules had praise and awards heaped on it when it made the festival rounds in 1972. But it was an art house film made in CinemaScope and with stereo sound: Smaller cinemas didn’t have the technology to show it and larger theaters didn’t want to give screen time to the lives of a French farm couple in their 80s. Thus, it languished and the prints deteriorated. Benicheti died during restoration attempts in 2011. A group of film enthusiasts took it on, and it’s been seen throughout Europe during the past few years. “The film marks the starting point of Glenn’s illustrious international career as a director of photography,” Peter Kirkpatrick says.

Another example of lost, found and revealed is Le Désert des Tartares (The Desert of the Tartars), made in 1976 as the last film of director Valerio Zurlini. It features an international cast including Jacques Perrin in a film described by one critic as “Beau Geste meets Waiting for Godot.” In 1900, on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a fortress garrison defends this remote outpost on the edge of a desert against an enemy that is only rumored to exist, but no one has ever seen. The film hasn’t been available for viewing for 37 years. In Richmond, Jacques Perrin, who plays young officer Drogo, will present the film on Saturday at 4 p.m.

“It was just digitally remastered for Cannes,” Peter Kirkpatrick explains. “We have a partnership with a post-production house that did this, and it’s one of those films that you keep thinking about days later, about what is it to be a individual and how is that experienced through film.”

Perrin, though working on a huge international production, volunteered to come and show the film here. Because he made the gesture, the Kirkpatricks gave him the choice of what film to show. “He’s made 120 films, we thought he’d pick one of his own,” Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick says of the actor/director who at age 27 produced and performed the 1969 political thriller Z, by Costa Gravas.  In recent years, Perrin directed Winged Migration and Oceans, which were presented at the festival. Peter Kirkpatrick explains, “He really revels in the collaboration between artists, technicians, engineers and creating new lenses to shoot his films. He’s nonstop and in love with the process.”

 Given carte blanche, though, he picked a recent documentary about the Italian director Federico Fellini, in part because cinematographer Luciano Tovoli worked on both Tartars and Che Strano Chimarsi Frederico. It’s a tribute and portrait of the greatly influential film artist, made with dramatic recreations, clips and documentary footage — blended in a way to honor its subject. 

“It’s the first time we’ve had an Italian film in the French festival,” Kirkpatrick says. Slotted for 5 p.m. on Friday, it’s a delightful way to end a week and begin your festival-going. 

Two other documentaries are receiving presentation. The first is Cinéast(e)s by Mathieu Busson and Julie Gayet. Busson and producer Christie Molia will present the lively hourlong inquiry into the women making movies, today (Thursday) at 5 p.m. It’s followed by Il est minuit, Paris s’ éville, about the post-World War II music cabaret of Paris. At 3 p.m. Friday is Faire quelque chose, about living members of the French Resistance who fought the German occupiers during World War II.

Another first is a film made in Mandarin in a Sino-French production of Le Promenuer d’ oiseau (The Nightingale), a film about the complications of family, history and promises made to keep.

The French Film Festival has risen to a level of importance that we here in the Holy City don’t fully appreciate. These renowned talents keep coming back because they want to. Director/acor Josiane Balasko is returning to Richmond for the fifth time, with husband and Native American actor George Aguilar. Richmonders may remember Balasko from the remarkable The Hedgehog, which played here four years ago. Her Demi-Soeur comes on Saturday at 1:55 p.m. 

Georges Méliès returns, or rather, one of the pioneering filmmaker’s short films will be shown for a third time. But better catch it Saturday at 9:45 p.m., because the repeat at Sunday’s end we’ve gotten accustomed to won’t happen this year.  It’s Le Raid Paris – Monte Carlo en deux heures (An Adventurous Automobile Trip). This restored copy of the classic comes via the collections of the Cinémathèque Française. The inimitable Todd Schall-Vess, who manages the Byrd, will present the narrative intercards.

Though hundreds of French cinema representatives have visited the Byrd and many have extolled its rare beauty, die-hard festival-goers may bring pillows or pads to get between them and the occasionally springy or spongy Byrd seats. It's worth mentioning here that our cans ultimately may be rescued by Cannes. It appears that some 2,200 seats from the Grand Theatre Lumière of the Palais des Festivals at the renowned film festival city will soon come here. (Style Weekly and WRIC-Channel 6.)

As usual, the Saturday and Sunday short film programs are among the favorites of the festival. DVD collections of these films are available now for purchase. 

In addition, there are films about biking, soccer and musicians. You can get the entire schedule and roster of films here. 

Tickets for individual films are $15 each and are only on sale at the Byrd Theatre, a half hour before each show, if available. VIP passes are $115 for adults, $65 for students. 

Here's a sampler.

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Dave Brockie in the GWAR "Slave Pit" along
North Boulevard during the summer of 2012.
Photo by Ash Daniel
It’s like somebody took chains and ripped a statue off its pedestal on Monument Avenue. That’s what it feels like. An action, by the way, that Dave Brockie might’ve extolled in his way, but he also might’ve critiqued the method or the motivation. I think he would’ve made his hoarse, anarchic chortle, though, upon receiving the news.

No such reactions were made at this office when it came to us that Brockie died on Sunday afternoon. 

The suddenness affects us, for certain, a reminder — in particular if you are past a certain age — that the footfalls of actuarial eventuality are gaining. And that they are overcoming more people you know. 

That phrase, “found dead.” It’s formed a suffix description for several early demises of the recent past and not only in Richmond. There’ s an air and implication to the words that are imposed on them regardless of the circumstance and especially for the not knowing, and frankly, not being our business. 

But I was immediately reminded of another “found dead” instance, that of Page Wilson, a practitioner of "pure-bred American mongrel music."

Wilson and Brockie were as wide apart in their musical approaches as one could imagine, but their commitment to their art was similar. GWAR’s influence was of a different kind — here in 2009, Pete Humes analyzed how GWAR carved its own unique niche as a business model

Wilson and his Reckless Abandon were part of a regional scene, with Wilson as a radio host and promoter. He and the band played with the Richmond Symphony. When word came around in March 2011 that 56-year-old Wilson was “found dead,” the same one-two surprise came to me: He’s not much older than I am, and how does this happen? The situations of their decease are also different, but, here we are — bereft of them both. 

I was able to recognize their work through the Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts just a year apart — Wilson for the 12th annual event in 2009 and GWAR and Brockie for the (appropriate) 13th in 2010. 

Don Drakulich, aka “Sleazy P. Martini,” accepted and Brockie/Oderus Urungus made a guest appearance via satellite. Well, sort of.

The 13th Annual Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts: Ensemble - GWAR from Richmond Magazine on Vimeo.

Last year, I attempted to bring linkage between the Confederate flaggers, the Black Iris Gallery GWAR exhibit and the Meaning of Richmond. This was the last time I saw Brockie and had the opportunity to just hang out and talk. Nothing profound was said, and he wearily shook his head about the 30 years of GWAR-dom. 

Most recently, Brockie appeared “in the flesh” as Oderus Urungus at our dining Oscars, The Elbys, where he surprised the audience when he came out to announce plans for the opening of a GWAR Bar in Richmond.

For years, in my head, I’d had this nutty idea and for whatever stupid self-consciousness or dread of logsitics, and more, where to go with the final result, I pushed this crazy vision to the far back burner. It involved me and Dave, sitting side by side, me in seersucker and him wearing whatever he wanted, delivering commentary on Richmond And Its Discontents. Maybe some video behind us. He was sure to cross the line sooner or later, and there I'd be, tut-tutting, “Now, Dave.” The one-off scenario might’ve been funny or just wince-worthy — or both — but now it won’t ever happen at all.

Here's further remembrance from Richmond magazine's archives.

TheatreLAB members heading downstairs to clean up their new
space: (clockwise from bottom right) Annie Colpitts, Heather Falks,
Chelsea Burke, Joe Kilgannon Toscano, Chanelle Vigue, Deejay Gray.
Annie Colpitts, managing director for Richmond's 2-year-old TheatreLAB, explains it this way: Back in the fall, after Deejay Gray, the company's co-founder and artistic director, made Style Weekly’s 2013 Top 40 Under 40, businessman Matt Bauserman asked Gray if the company had ever thought of getting a place to call home. He owns a building at 300 E. Broad St. that has residential spaces on the second floor, and he and wanted a commercial tenant on the first floor, but there’s also a basement. 

TheatreLAB has performed in begged and borrowed spaces and found a consistent place at Plant Zero. Colpitts and Gray thought that one day, a few years down the road, eventually the group would have a dedicated stage. The thing about theater is, well, it’s a crazy business. Enter Bauserman. 

Colpitts remembers the fateful day in October. “We took a look and everything felt right. It fit our aesthetic; it’s a great size and location. We walked out into the light: We didn’t expect that to happen. What do we do? Two weeks after that, the Central National Bank building got approved for apartments. As soon as that happened, the entire block started getting snatched up by developers and Realtors. Matt came back to us and said, 'If you want to do this, let’s talk soon.' "
TheatreLAB's new basement space

After some further consideration, TheatreLAB entered a three-year lease with Bauserman, who supports proliferation within the arts district of downtown. The time period will include the transformation of the space and, says Colpitts, the idea is to open the theater in October — a year after they first walked down into it.

The 3,300-square-foot space is not without its challenges. The ceilings are about 11 feet high, and they’ll need to get creative about using the room. “The playing space would have to be only a few inches off the ground and seating on slightly staggered risers," Colpitts says. "If you install a lighting grid, that drops the ceiling at least a foot, so we’re thinking of installing the grid along the walls.” It will be an intimate space with a likely capacity of 75 people. 

On Saturday, TheatreLAB opens Grace by Craig Wright, running through April 5, at the RVA Event Space of Plant Zero. The play collides together the concerns of faith, fate, the absurd and the divine — and it’s dark and funny. An evangelical Christian couple, Sara and Steve, leave their moribund Minnesota life for sunny Florida with a nutty scheme of turning abandoned hotels into a chain of gospel-themed inns. Their new neighbor, Sam, a NASA scientist, is contending with the trauma resulting from a car accident that killed his fiancée and left him badly maimed. And the building's pest exterminator, Karl, is tormented by a dark childhood episode. The production, directed by Gray, features Alexander Sapp, McLean Jesse, Nicholas Aliff and veteran performer Eric D. Dobbs. You can see a preview at Virginia This Morning.

In the first two weekends of May, Chanelle Vigue will direct Closer, the Patrick Marber play that uses partner-swapping as a way to contemplate physical appetite and love. It’ll also be produced at the RVA Event Space. From May 16 to 18, director James Ricks will helm a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome to benefit TheatreLAB, featuring a glittering roster of Richmond theater. 

Spectrum, a youth outreach program that TheatreLAB is partnering in with Richmond Triangle Players, allows LGBT self-identified youth to apply for a theater residency. They’ll learn to tell their own story and develop a character in order to tell another person’s story, and this will become an evening of theater. Spectrum runs from June 4 to July 27.

The company wants to open the new basement space with the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The subterranean setting should aid a gritty play about an East German transgendered rocker. It's tough, romantic, funny and affirming. But what a ride. All the way to the bottom. And back.

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Three events a mile and some subject matter apart are occurring roughly at the same time tonight, and it tells us something about Richmond that if possible, we’d want to be at both. No correlation exists between them save for the basic human desire for expression, one way or another. 

First, civil rights activist Edward H. Peeples, Jr. , with Nancy MacLean, has published his autobiography, Scalawag, through the University of Virginia press. At a free and open event beginning at 6:30 p.m. at VCU's W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, there’ll be a talk, speakers and a book signing.

His fascinating story begins, “My mother picked a helluva day for me to arrive on this earth: April 20, 1935, the same birthday as Adolf Hitler, who at that very moment was engaged in the violent creation of his Aryan empire. This proved to be a strange coincidence, because I contended all my adult life with some of the ideas that Hitler and the German Nazi regime had borrowed from America’s white supremacist ideology, especially as it applied in my native Virginia.” As Peeples explains, Virginia a decade prior to his birth passed its own Racial Integrity Act that defined who was white and made intermarriage illegal. At the same time, the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act sanctioned forced sterilization on the underclass, mostly black, but also white, and among those considered mentally incompetent or physically infirm — “useless eaters” as the Nazis termed them.

This is the world that Peeples came into at St. Luke’s Hospital at Harrison and Grace streets. Raised in Jim Crow Richmond, he was like many whites of his time in that his only interaction with African Americans was essentially to bully them. Until age 14, Peeples didn’t see any African Americans in newspapers or magazines unless concerning a sports figure. Radio gave him Amos n' Andy (of whom "Amos," Freeman Gosden, was a Richmonder) and Jack Benny’s valet, "Rochester." He ended up at Richmond Professional Institute, then a “scruffy little institutional vassal of the prestigious College of William and Mary.” His first attempt at higher ed didn’t go well, ending in drunkenness and broken furniture, but reinstated, his life changed. 

He took courses under sociology professor Alice Davis, who’d earned her doctorate through Howard W. Odum’s renowned Southern regional studies program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Davis didn’t assign readings and gave no tests, but engaged her classes in discussions ranging from social justice, women’s reproductive rights, environmental conservation and world politics. This was the McCarthy era, and some students suspected Davis and her colleague, Russian émigré Nadia Davilevsky, as subversives. This potential enhanced the teacher’s campus popularity.

Peeples took whatever class “Dr. Alice” taught. “Each one,” he says, “no matter the title, was the same: a salon where, without the usual academic fanfare, we would debate ceaselessly the great ideas that drove the second half of twentieth century.”

A defining moment came when, out of nowhere, Davis asked the class to take out a blank sheet of paper and trace their family back 10 generations. Most of the students couldn’t get past four. One called out that tracing back 10 generations was impossible, too long ago, and too many people. Davis waited several long minutes until issuing a challenge: “Are you sure you are not a Negro?”

“Her question singed my ears,” Peeples writes. “I thought of all the boasting of sexual conquests of black women I had heard from men in my family and my acquaintances over the years. Her question drove a dagger into the heart of the racial myth that governed our lives … After all, we followed the ‘one drop’ rule for assigning race. After class, all of us white Southerners filed out of the room in dead silence.  In the months to follow, I began losing my comfort with white supremacist notions. She never knew it, but Dr. Alice redirected my life with the dagger of truth. It was my first day as a race traitor.”

Peeples went on to become “An Activist Professor in a New University in the Old Capital of the Confederacy,” as he describes himself in one of his book's chapters. While teaching at the Medical College of Virginia in the early 1960s, he published a mimeographed underground newspaper, “The Ghost,” that spoke out against segregation and the ills of the day. He would go on to document the racially-based closings of the Prince Edward County public schools.  

He’s retired now as emeritus associate professor of preventive medicine and community health at VCU. He’s a character, in the best sense of the Southern word, and one you’ll want to meet, whether in person or in his pages. 

Meanwhile, down the street at the Black Iris Studios, at 7:30 in the speakeasy bar in the back, is an intimate concert by Jonathan Russell, founding member of the Head and The Heart. “We managed to pull it off before he heads off for the next Head and the Heart tour,” says curator/programmer Benjamin Thorp. 

This is part of the co-hosting duties that Black Iris is holding in conjunction with the 1708 Gallery’s 35th anniversary art auction, March 29. Russell’s music, out of the country/folk/alt-Americana  genre, addresses his years of traveling and, as the pre-publicity puts it, reflects on “the contradiction in values that shape our world.” 
"Quilting Bee of Clouds," 2013, VCUAnderson Gallery

Russell’s performance closes the evening of an exhibition opening from 5 to 7 p.m. by textiles artist Andrea Vail. Her "WOVEN" is a three-part community-focused collaboration that aims to connect individuals within the Richmond Arts and Cultural District by collecting donated crochet materials, unraveling them to reclaim yarn, and inviting Richmonders to join the artist in a public re-weaving of the yarn into an original work.

The project culminates in the presentation of the final woven piece.

The message of this evening: We are made from many strands, woven by experience, pulled apart and put back together, and through this process, eventually made whole. But the work never ends.

Tell us, Jonathan, of these heavy days.

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