Saturday, February 28, 2009

If you can't get an Oscar, try a César

Yesterday the Césars ceremony was held in Paris. The Césars are cinema awards similar to the Academy Awards in the United States, except on a microscopic, specifically French scale. They are named after a sculptor who created the statuette for the awards, which looks very much like a washing machine that has been sent through a trash compactor.

The Césars are terribly famous in France, but essentially unknown everywhere else. Many of the awards go to people and films that will never be exported. It's interesting to see how people become fixated on something and give it tremendous importance, even as it is completely unknown and ignored elsewhere. It's a blend of the big-fish-small-pond syndrome and the local-celebrity syndrome. The Césars are front-page news in France.

It reminds me of the frequent (American) claim that a billion people watch the Super Bowl. Of course, that claim isn't true. In theory, a billion people could tune in to see the Super Bowl, but in fact nobody outside the U.S. actually does so, so the real audience is limited mainly to the United States (around 100 million viewers). But I still see American visitors in France asking what people thought of the game when Super Bowl season comes around, and they are surprised to learn that nobody here even knows what the game is.

If you want an audience of a billion, try World Cup soccer. But that event has virtually no viewers in the U.S. The world is a big place.

Anyway, the Césars are like a mini-Oscars, with a smaller budget, smaller attendance, smaller impact, and so on, but with big ambitions. I don't watch the Oscars, and so I'm certainly not going to watch the Césars. I've heard that Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, but that's all I know, and that's more than I know about the new crop of Césars.

As for Fouquet's, where the stars come after the ceremony, it's a strange place, right on the fabulous Champs-Élysées. The name, with its apostrophe, is a deliberate anglicism. In front of the main entrance, there are brass plaques in the sidewalk listing winners of the César award. The place is said to be expensive and chichi; I've never been inside. Part of the café has been designated a historical monument. At the same time, back in 1994, the establishment was cited for multiple health regulation violations, with cockroaches in the kitchen and flies on the potatoes (the then-director claimed that every restaurant has flies on its potatoes, which is news to me). And in 1999 there was a bit of a scandal over the fact that the venue wouldn't admit unaccompanied women, because it considered them to be prostitutes—I don't know if that 18th-century policy is still in place, but for me it's reason enough to stay away. Right now, there are several parties suing and counter-suing each other in a dispute over who actually owns the building in which Fouquet's is located.

In any case, I won't set foot inside Fouquet's, ever since one of their rent-a-cops assaulted me on the sidewalk in front of the café some years ago.

But I digress … let's see, who actually won the Césars? Let me look this up … Okay, a movie called Séraphine won the Best Picture César, and an actress named Yolande Moreau won the Best Actress award. Now I know more about the Césars than I do about the Oscars. I'm not sure if that's good or bad; I think it's mainly unimportant.

So why do I write about the Césars at all? Well, mainly because the festivities interfere with traffic on the Champs, that's all.

Not that I don't like movies. I enjoy movies, even a few French films, although I tend to find American films more entertaining (and if I watch a movie, it's mainly because I wish to be entertained). And I'm not alone: if you walk around Paris, you see that seven out of ten films at the cinemas are American films (usually dubbed, sometimes subtitled), so it seems that even the French aren't fond of French films.

The world of French cinema is kind of complicated. Maybe I'll discuss it in a future blog post.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Paris Hilton sold out, Diana mostly forgotten, Vélib's disappearing

I was quite astonished to see recently that the Paris Hilton, a landmark hotel in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, has sold out to Pullman, a rebuilt up-market brand of the European Accor group of hotels. This had been a Hilton for nearly half a century, since 1966, and I hardly expected it to change hands, but it has.

The first time I noticed this, there was a film crew making a moving at the hotel, so I thought it was just a change for the movie, especially since the Pullman signs seemed stuck on as an afterthought. But no … the hotel has actually been sold, just this month. With their flagship hotel gone, Hilton now has only the smaller property near the Arc de Triomphe within the city limits; it's a nice hotel, but not as historically significant as the one near the Eiffel Tower. True, the Eiffel Tower property was showing its age—the 1960s architecture has dated badly—but it was still a nice place. I wonder where Bill Gates will stay during his trips to Paris now? (Supposedly the ex-CEO of Microsoft preferred this Hilton.) And this also ruins all sorts of Paris Hilton jokes (the Paris Hilton with big feet, not the landmark hotel).

Walking to school to save a Métro ticket (I had only 50 cent in my pocket, and no prospect of additional income until mid-March), I ran across no less than three different movie location shoots. There are about nine location shoots a day in Paris, and if you walk around on a weekday there's a reasonable chance that you'll run across one of them, but three in one morning was quite exceptional. One of them was at the aforementioned ex-Hilton. I don't know what any of them were for. You get used to seeing this sort of thing. It's like living in Los Angeles.

Passing the replica of the Statue of Liberty's flame on the Alma bridge, I noted that it was pretty clean, apart from a few graffiti and other junk still rambling on about Princess Diana. I suppose her groupies are all grown up now, and of course none have replaced them, since she is no longer with us (PBUH).

And strolling past one of the innumerable Vélib’ stations in the city, I was reminded of the recent complaints of JC Decaux (which has the contract for the bicycle system) that vandalism and theft are costing it huge amounts of money—supposedly nearly half of the inventory of bicycles has been stolen and has required replacement, at some $500 per bicycle. But JC Decaux has very juicy and exclusive deals with the city, so I take their complaints with a grain of salt. On the way home, by coincidence, I actually saw a Vélib’ boat carrying bicycles; perhaps that's an efficient way to redistribute them or something.

What else did I notice on my walk to work? Hmm … oh yes, there was the latest of Jean Nouvel's eyesores, the Musée du Quai Branly (there's something about that name that somehow seems appropriate for JN's masterpiece, but my desire to not nuire à la bienséance prevents me from going there). I tried to avert my gaze from the psychosis-inducing architecture of the museum itself, but I did take a look at the vegetation wall, to see how it was doing. This wall is an exterior wall that is designed to actually serve as a sort of vertical planter for all sorts of real, living plants. It still seems to be in fairly good shape, especially considering that this is wintertime. It's the only interesting and aesthetic part of the building, but it's not enough to compensate for the rest. Unfortunately, passing this building brought to mind depressing thoughts of Jean Nouvel designing a new eyesore to replace the Parc des Expositions on the south side of the city, a project that has been bandied about lately, but perhaps the current economic depression will stop that project (in which case at least something good will have come of the crisis).

I pass the Eiffel Tower quite often, and passing it today wasn't unusual in any way, but I did notice the “Eiffel Tower Rules” while passing beneath it, and I just had to take a picture. These rules are so typically French! There are about a thousand different rules, in type so tiny that you have to practically press your nose to the sign to read them, and they are chock full of interdits and non autorisés and Article 392 bis’s, and all those other frightening, absolute phrases that the French love to put in their overly-complicated and routinely-ignored rule collections. I doubt that anyone reads these rules, least of all the French. But complex rules are part of the ingenious system of selective enforcement upon which French society is based. Everyone knows that nobody can follow all the rules to the letter, so everyone is breaking a rule. However, breaking the rules is normally “tolerated,” so it doesn't matter. But when the French establishment wants to single someone out for punishment, it looks at all the rules, and finds a rule that the unlucky victim has broken, and then prosecutes. Thus, the illusion of equality and democracy is maintained, while the reality of inequality and favoritism is practiced. Of course, France isn't unique in this respect—it is quite common in Latin countries with their Napoleonic statutory laws.

Speaking of rules, I was looking at welfare programs for renters a few days ago, at someone else's suggestion (because I'm very poor, I have to try to find ways to save or make money at every opportunity). I did a calculation on the Web site of the CAF (the agency that handles many types of welfare), and sure enough, I theoretically would qualify for help with the rent, based on my meager income. There's just one problem, though: the law requires that any apartment for which this assistance is received be equipped with hot and cold running water in the “kitchen corner” (an alcove that serves as a kind of kitchen in apartments too modest to have the real thing) … and mine lacks the hot water. Oh well. You have to fill out a 2,458-page dossier with DNA samples from your great-grandparents and pay slips from the last Ice Age to apply, anyway, so I suppose it probably would have been refused on some other basis in any case.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Horses for courses

Paris regularly hosts at least one salon du cheval (horse show) and I keep meaning to attend one of them one of these days, but money and time constraints get in the way. I'm not a big fan of horses but I'm curious about many things and I'd be interested in seeing what it is about horses that creates fans.

Anyway, for what seems like quite a long time now, I've been seeing advertisements for a new video game, called Horse Life, which is unusual in that it actually seems to target girls. Most video games are created by teenage boys for other teenage boys, and thus never have much to them beyond what teenage boys like, and teenage boys don't have many interests beyond intense, repetitive action and violence. In practice, this means that the video game market is plagued by a permanent epidemic of first-person shooters, and very little with any intellectual content. So it's nice to see something targeting a different market. This title is unusual in that it seems to have been given quite an advertising budget. I've seen advertisements throughout the Métro and on sidewalk displays.

As I've said, I didn't go to the most recent Salon du Cheval, but informed sources tell me that this game had a booth and that there was quite a crowd of young girls playing with the game on display. So much the better. I'm so sick and tired of first-person shooters. Even games that claim not to be FPS typically really are. And that pretty much completely locks girls out of the picture, since few of them are interested in blowing up monsters for hours at a time.

In my own case, I tend to prefer simulation games, such as Flight Simulator, or The Sims 2, or Second Life. I did play Doom for a while long ago, although it gave me motion sickness and I soon exhausted the novelty of the game. Modern games are essentially the same thing with more eye candy.

Anyway, I think Horse Life (now in version 2, only months after the first version was released) comes from Germany or somewhere. The heavy advertising makes it exceptional. I visited the Web site and the trailers and screenshots looked okay, although apparently players are constrained to a single avatar that looks a lot like Ellen Whitaker, the celebrity endorser for the product. And little pink hearts (but no green clovers, thank goodness!) bubble out of your horse when you treat it well.

In contrast to this, I got Grand Theft Auto IV not long ago, at a discount price, and I almost installed it—until I discovered that Sony has its hands in the product and that it installs a rootkit. I don't like rootkits, so I skipped it. Too bad … it has a reputation so fabulous that I was willing to try it even though I don't like the angry-young-male style of FPS games.

What does all this have to do with Paris? Well, the ads for Horse Life are all over the town, or at least they were a few weeks ago, so I figured I'd comment on it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Stroll through Sin City

In halcyon days of yore, I had the money and time to take daily long walks (usually around three hours) through Paris. That's how I racked up no less than 50,000 kilometers of walking in the city over the years. Today I have neither money nor time, and so walking is a rare treat for me. Today I decided to take a modest stroll of about 2.5 hours in the city, for enjoyment and for health.

I took the Métro up to the place de Clichy. This is a large roundabout in the northwestern part of the city that is surrounded by restaurants and cinemas. It's fairly animated most of the time, and today was no exception, despite the chilly weather (temperatures around freezing).

Along the east side of the boulevard de Clichy, there are lots of restaurants. They range from McDonald's and KFC to standard Franco-French places like Charlot (well known for its shellfish—unfortunately I hate shellfish) and Wepler . It has a pleasant, not-too-chichi atmosphere.

As you move up the street, past the grim-looking Jules Ferry high school with its barred windows (all schools in Paris have barred windows—it makes me wonder what they do if the place catches fire), you enter infamous Pigalle, which Americans like to pronounce “pig alley,” although the correct pronunciation is “pee-gahl.” Pigalle was a French sculptor who would probably be horrified to learn what his name has become associated with. The name of this district has become synonymous with sex and naughty night life, although today it doesn't really offer anything that you wouldn't see in hundreds of Western cities. At one time it was quite unique and risqué.

I walked along the boulevard de Clichy, which is the main drag of Pigalle. On either side of the boulevard, you see mostly restaurants and sex shops (including the gigantic Sexodrome and an “erotic supermarket”). There are also a few live theaters, both legitimate (i.e., showing regular plays, nothing to do with sex) and “erotic” (sex shows). The restaurants are mostly simple places, and tend to blend in with pubs. There are quite a few Middle-Eastern places that serve sandwiches and other food to go.

Perhaps the best-known place in Pigalle is the Moulin Rouge (“Red Mill”) dinner theater, which has a very fancy stage show and also offers drinks and dinner. It's expensive but I'm told it's pretty good (I don't do dinner theaters myself). Today you can see the same or better in Las Vegas, but here again, when the Moulin Rouge first became popular, there was scarcely anything else like it; they were doing elaborate shows when Las Vegas was still filled with tumbleweeds. The place gets its name from the large red windmill that adorns it (the original burned down years ago, but it was replaced).

Another moderately famous place is Madame Arthur, a cabaret that features top female impersonators. I've never understood the attraction of female impersonation, given that real women are so much better looking and so much more female, but this venue has been around for ages. It has kind of a swirly orangish facade that's easy to spot, although it's on a side street off the boulevard. I've never been there.

Another place less known to tourists is the Musée de l'Érotisme (Erotica Museum). It's a museum dedicated to sex. Contrary to what you might think (and contrary to many other establishments on the boulevard), it is quite tastefully done, with seven floors of exhibits. I've been there once. I'm not interested in sex, so it wasn't very engrossing for me, but it's well organized, not the seedy sort of thing that you might expect.

In times past, one of my favorite spots in Pigalle was a little shop that sold all sorts of obsolete audio and video equipment. It was fascinating to look through their stuff and see how movies, video, audio, and photography have advanced in past decades. When you compare a U-Matic portable video set-up with a modern DV Handicam, you realize how far things have come in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, this little shop has disappeared. I guess it was hard to make money selling obsolete equipment. It was more of a museum than a shop, I think.

Further down the boulevard are some other stores that I like, which sell sound and music equipment. There's a guitar shop and a drum shop, too. Very cool stuff. I am interested in music, sound, and images. I bought a compact gadget at one of these shops once that combined a mixing table with a four-track cassette recorder. It was very cool, although I wasn't sure what to do with it (I used it once or twice). I can't even remember what happened to it. I must have sold it. That was in the days when I had money.

As you continue down the boulevard de Clichy and it becomes the boulevard de Rochechouart, the sex shops gradually disappear and are replaced by discount stores selling all kinds of junk. The atmosphere becomes a bit seedier after the rue de Steinkerque (which leads up to the Sacré-Cœur basilica on the Montmartre butte), and tourists are replaced by mostly Third-World immigrants (Africa, Middle East, some from Asia). It's usually very busy but not very glamorous. Eventually, you end up behind the Gare du Nord train station.

In my case, though, I turned south at the place Pigalle and walked down towards the Opéra district. There are some side streets here with shady bars that are filled with women in underwear who beckon to people outside. They have a habit of shafting customers who come in in search of female company, and sometimes they get nasty. I wonder why a woman would be willing to sit all day at a bar in her underwear; I guess it's a living, like anything else (a woman with this job is called an entraîneuse, which means “someone who drags (you in),” because her job is to entice people into the bar and then persuade them to buy a lot of overpriced liquor).

Lower down this street (the rue Frochot, if you must know), there's a place that has some gambling (permitted in certain ways and circumstances for private clubs). And at the bottom of the street, there's a private residence (I think it's a residence) next to a private drive that includes a beautiful stained-glass window. It's kind of incongruous, given what surrounds it. Stranger still, in the window I recognize what seems to be inspiration from The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a woodblock print of a tsunami created by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai around 1820—quite an odd subject.

Below that, I eventually reached the rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, which is lively as it approaches the boulevard Montmartre. On the latter I turned east, past the Max Linder cinema, one of a handful with giant screens still in business today (another is the Rex, which is just down the street). There are lots of shops on the boulevard, starting out chichi near the Opera, and then gradually transitioning into discount shops as you move east. There are also a great many restaurants of just about every type you might want.

When I reached the wicked rue Saint-Denis, I turned south. If you go north on this street, you pass all sorts of ethnic groceries, and it's pretty interesting, but that was out of my way, so I went south, down a street best known today for its prostitutes. The street has been greatly improved over the past few years, with new sidewalks, new cobblestones for the streets, and so on, and it looks very nice. The prostitutes are discreet, and there were few of them out on this cold evening. Most of them usually look exceedingly weatherbeaten, making me wonder how they avoid starvation, but I saw two on this evening who had cute faces, at least (the rest was hidden under fur coats).

Occasionally you see a group of men on the street standing across from a doorway. Often these are men waiting for very cheap sex with a prostitute who accommodates one client after another, usually under duress. The men want to have sex because they think it is necessary for their health (this is not a French belief, so most of the men are in fact not French), not because they are truly interested in it, so any sex will do for them. Not a pretty picture. I read a report once about a woman who had left a convent, trusted the wrong people, and ended up being one of these assembly-line prostitutes for several years until she found a way to sneak away and escape (actually, leaving was easy, but finding someplace else to go was hard).

Glancing into sidestreets, I saw a fair number of men standing alone near some buildings. They looked like—and probably were—either drug dealers or their clients. The USA has been exporting its obsession with drugs (and its drug dealers) to Europe for years, and every year it gets worse here in consequence.

As you move south on the rue Saint-Denis, the sex shops and prostitutes fade away, to be replaced by trendy clothing stores, restaurants, and bars. By the time you reach the Forum, the change is complete, and there are a lot more people around. Here you find yet another McDonald's and KFC (not to mention another Pizza Hut, another Starbucks, another Subway, and so on). I continued through this area and on down to the river.

I crossed the river onto the Île de la Cité, noted that the Sanisettes on the island had been turned off (more paranoia, I suppose), and continued past the big Christmas tree in front of Notre-Dame to the Left Bank. The Latin Quarter was especially crowded, as it always is, and the atmosphere was wonderful, as it always is. I stopped at the McDonald's here (yes, another one), ate dinner, and hopped on the Métro to go back home.

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