Monday, May 30, 2011

Return to the Promenade Plantée

I went back to visit the Promenade Plantée a few days ago, which I haven't visited in ages. It's a strip of parkway on the east side of Paris, built about 25 years ago, along the path of an abandoned railway that used to end near the Bastille. The western end is elevated, the eastern end is below ground level. When I first visited it, long ago, most of the trees along the parkway were freshly planted saplings; today, they've grown quite large, and the parkway is a welcome and refreshing change of scenery from the concrete and asphalt that dominates Paris.

I was inspired to return there by recent references to the parkway among friends and acquaintances. In fact, I decided to make a little video that shows it, which I'm still editing.

It takes 45 minutes to an hour to walk the parkway. At the western end is the Viaduc des Arts. It's a converted viaduct for the old railway, with a parkway on top, where the tracks used to be, and shops beneath the arches of the viaduct at street level. The shops are heavily slanted towards skilled craftsmen, such as makers of musical instruments, ceramic art, etc. Many of the shops are quite interesting and even a bit eccentric. At several points, there are stairs that allow you to access the parkway on top of the viaduct. The parkway is a twisty central sidewalk surrounded by plants of all sorts, with occasional landscaping decorations such as fountains, plus many benches where you can sit as long as you want. The height of the viaduct isolates it a bit from the surroundings and makes it quieter than the sidewalks at street level.

As you walk east, the viaduc eventually yields to some interesting paths that cut directly through apartment buildings. These eventually lead to the Jardin de Reuilly, a very nice little park located at the site of a station on the old railway line. The line is gone but the station has been preserved. A suspension bridge leads over the main grassy area of the park. This park is interesting because it's the first place in Paris that has a free public water fountain that dispenses fizzy water instead of flat tap water. The fizzy water is refrigerated and carbonated because … well, just because the city wanted to offer free fizzy water to its citizens. People come to fill their water bottles with the free sparkling water. There's free ordinary water, too. Both dispensers get their supplies from the tap water network, but making the water fizzy makes it more fun to drink.

Continuing east from the park, you go through a small commerce area with mostly restaurants that is level with the surrounding streets. Beyond that, the street level rises, and the Promenade Plantée continues below street level. Most of this is in a kind of open valley where the trains used to run, but there are also a few tunnels. It's even quieter than the elevated portion of the parkway. There are usually lots of people throughout the parkway, but the eastern end has somewhat fewer people than the western end much of the time. There are lots of joggers and cyclists (there are bicycle paths to keep them apart).

After walking below ground for a while, you come to another park, and the path splits up in several directions, only one of which actually continues east, so you have to make your way carefully if you wish to continue following the parkway. Beyond that is a quieter portion of the parkway well below street level.

Following a relatively short walk in this area, you come to a dead end with a spiral staircase. A barrier prevents you from going further east. This is right near the city limit, just short of the boulevard Périphérique (beltway) that surrounds Paris. The staircase leads back up to street level, to a small path that runs parallel to the beltway. Beyond the barrier, the tunnels continue for a short distance and then dead-end in the suburb of Saint Mandé, which is just northwest of the Bois de Vincennes, one of the two massive parks that sit on either side of Paris and belong to the city (the other one is the Bois de Boulogne, on the west side).

All in all it's a nice one-hour stroll. I walked the parkway all the way to its eastern end, then walked back to the Bastille and then home through the city streets.

I was particularly struck by how much the trees have grown. It really looks like a jungle at some points, but that's a nice change of pace.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More on French film

I've passed some posters advertising a new animated science-fiction film, The Prodigies, and I was surprised to see that it was produced by a French company. The French film industry can just barely finance the standard-issue French slice-of-life film, so to see a feature-length computer-animated film in 3D from a French company implies that either some truly wealthy backers were miraculously found, or someone broke the piggy bank for a one-off extravaganza.

France has one of the world's largest film industries, but it still trails way behind Hollywood and Bollywood. It's hard to find financial backing in France, and one of the most common sources of backing turns out to be a semi-government agency, upon which French filmmakers have come to depend (to an unhealthy extent, in my opinion). Often financing is a hodgepodge of nickels and dimes from a long list of partners, all of which seem to require that their logos appear in a hokey list across the bottom of the movie posters. The government has a taste for “artsy” films, which further complicates things, because it makes it harder to finance a film that might actually make money at the box office.

Another complication is the frequent leaning towards the auteur model of filmmaking, in which one guy (it's almost invariably a guy) writes, directs, acts, edits, and does just about everything else for a film, giving him complete control over the result. The problem is that there are probably only about five people in the world who have sufficiently diverse and significant talent to undertake all of those roles at once in a movie production, and the myriad others who haven't such gifts usually produce garbage when they attempt to do it all themselves. So a lot of French films tend to be arthouse B-movies, rather than successful blockbusters built by a team of specialized artists and technicians.

Then there's the dialog. In French movies, there are tons and tons of dialog. Talk, talk, talk. It's characteristic of French films. Action is quite limited. This may work for domestic release but it's a big problem for export, because you have to subtitle or dub all of the 36,483 pages of dialog. Many markets (notably the United States) just will not tolerate dubbing or subtitling. That's one reason why several French vehicles that were successful in France were remade by Hollywood for the U.S. market (e.g., Trois hommes et un couffin, which was remade as Three Men and a Baby).

Here's the typical French film: One man and one woman in bed. They talk (a lot), they have sex, and then they smoke cigarettes. Repeat this for two hours.

Most French films are slice-of-life films, without the multiple-act structure of American films. You feel that you've walked into the middle of something at the start of the film, and you feel you've been pushed back out at the end.

Are these bad or good things? Well, that depends on your tastes. Some people like prolix, slice-of-life films. They do well enough in France. But they don't export well, and it's worth noting that seven out of ten films at the local Parisian multiplex will typically be American blockbusters, dubbed or subtitled. You're more likely to find Oscar winners on the schedule rather than winners of the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

The one thing that probably is indisputably bad is the lack of money for filmmaking in France. Films are often made on a shoestring, crews and talent are poorly paid (or sometimes not paid at all), there's no room for special effects or much of anything other than the most banal location shots, and so on. There have been a few big-budget films, some of which have been extremely successful at the box office, but unfortunately these are exceptions to the rule. Most of the French box office ends up in the pockets of Hollywood these days.

It seems that French audiences respond to much the same things that please American audiences: lots of action, special effects, a clear structure to the film, with a simple plot and a good ending. But French filmmakers don't often produce this, so their films struggle even as Hollywood rakes in the cash. The few French films that have been made according to this Hollywood model have been just as successful as the American films. But I sometimes think that French filmmakers consider it below them to produce a movie that simply provides entertainment for a fee, whereas American studios have no such qualms.

Of course, you might look at the incredibly lame videos I've been putting on YouTube and wonder what qualifies me to criticize anyone else's work. But I don't think you have to be a talented filmmaker yourself just to form valid opinions of other films or the film industry in general. I think Roger Ebert is a good film critic, but the best he could ever do himself as a screenwriter was … Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens!

Anyway, I don't go to see movies much these days. It's too expensive. I can't even afford DVDs any more, and in any case I have nothing to play DVDs on, since I had to sell that long ago in order to buy groceries and pay rent.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A ride on the bus

I've put up yet another video. This one is a video showing a ride on a Paris bus, specifically, line 91 of the bus system. I go from terminus to terminus, Bastille to Montparnasse, shooting out the window in one uninterrupted take of 32 minutes.

Why make a video of a bus ride? Well, why not? It's interesting to watch the city go by out the window, especially if you've never been to Paris. I just wanted to do something different.

The bus was a big articulated bus, and I sat just behind the articulated part, facing backwards, and shooting slightly backwards. This position allowed me to avoid having the sun blaze directly into the camera at any point on the route.

Unfortunately the bus windows are tinted green, so I had to try to correct for that in post-production, with limited success.

You know, I really hate green-tinted windows. I associate them with desert heat, and that brings bag bad memories. The greenish tint also is associated with queasiness and illness in my mind, for some reason. Why can't they just darken the windows with a neutral gray? What is it about green that makes it such a popular window tint? And why are bus windows tinted at all in Paris? We're not in the tropics, and the sun isn't that much of a nuisance, most of the time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

DSK, and speed traps

Well, French news media are all a flutter, covering the “DSK affair” ad nauseam. Dominique Strauss-Kahn isn't well known elsewhere in the world, but in France he's quite a VIP, a member of the old boys' club that runs the country. I won't repeat the details of the affair since they have been exhaustively reported everywhere, but I can make a few observations.

The French seem to be mainly surprised by the fact that a member of the old boys' club can be arrested and prosecuted for anything short of murder. In France, that doesn't happen. Justice is meted out based in part on a person's social rank, and the boys at the top are practically immune to its effects. France is also a Latin, macho country (albeit not as severely afflicted as most Latin countries are), and so harassment of women is considered routine.

It's not clear whether or not this particular incident is a set-up designed to bring down DSK (which, by the way, the French pronounce as “day-ehss-kah”), but his alleged history of misogynistic abuse of women will not work in his favor irrespective of whether or not he is guilty in this case. I myself don't really know. It's not hard to believe that he's guilty, but there are a lot of coincidences that could imply a set-up, too. But I don't really care. DSK was potentially slated to run in the next French presidential election, but I can't vote in French elections, so it matters not to me.

In France, justice works at different speeds, depending on who you are. In the United States, it works at different speeds, depending on how much money you have. DSK is more or less unknown in the United States, but his wife is rich and he's spending $50,000 a month on his apartment where he is under house arrest, so maybe that will work in his favor.

The other recent event that illustrates the standard Latin doublethink that prevails in legal matters in France and other countries with ties to those ancient Romans is the change in speed-trap policies. The government has announced that it will no longer publish the locations of radar speed traps. See, in France, it's illegal to have a radar detector in the car, but it's legal to have GPS and database-based gadgets that warn whenever a driver is approaching a published radar speed trap. The doublethink here is that the speed traps are intended to catch drivers who are speeding, but at the same time the government publishes information that can only be used for one purpose: avoiding the speed traps. Thus, the government tacitly approves of speeding, while creating the illusion that it's doing something about it.

It's a problem because motor-vehicle accident rates have skyrocketed recently, and most accidents involve either excessive speed, alcohol, or both. The purpose of a speed trap, of course, is to catch speeders and thereby serve as a deterrent. But it's not a deterrent at all when you tell people about them in advance, thereby allowing them to speed everywhere except in the traps with impunity. Everyone in France knows this, but practically everyone denies it, instead saying that publishing the locations of the radar traps somehow improves safety, through some incredibly convoluted line of flawed reasoning.

The companies that manufacture these gadgets are up in arms, because stopping publication of the locations of the radar traps will put them out of business. They are wailing about loss of jobs (which I guess is more important than massive loss of life in accidents), and the importance of their products to other countries (hard to believe, since nobody has quite the same policy as France as far as I know).

Of course, I favor stopping publication of the radar locations. And I hope that DSK gets a fair trial, either going to jail if he's guilty, or being set free if he's not. But I'm not optimistic on either point.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Movies, and the Eiffel Tower

Another movie was being filmed near my house last night. I've become so jaded living in Europe's answer to Hollywood (i.e., Paris) that I didn't even bother to go take a look, although I saw the trucks parked nearby when I went to get some groceries. I don't know what movie was being filmed.

You can walk around Paris on any weekday and see film crews shooting on location. Paris is a popular setting for movies, TV shows, and commercials. I'm quite interested in the technology of cinema, but not as much in the artistic part. For example, I'm interested in cameras and lighting, and editing, and things like that, but I'm not interested in acting, and I'm indifferent to “stars.”

Perhaps one of the most widely talked-about location shots recently was that of Midnight in Paris, a film by Woody Allen. It got into the news because the French president's top-model wife, Carla Bruni, had a part in the film. Allen commented that he had wanted to make the film back in 2006, but that it was “too expensive.” And yet, when he made it in 2010, four years later, it was suddenly affordable? Hmm. It's tempting to see a link between Carla Bruni and the many tedious permits that must be obtained to shoot movies in Paris … but maybe I'm just being cynical, eh?

Anyway, so someone was shooting in my neighborhood, which happens quite often. I guess there's something about this part of town that makes it suitable for shooting—perhaps the fairly nondescript Parisian architecture and little-known streets make it easy for locations here to pass for anywhere. Who knows? But one often sees little pieces of paper taped to poles and doorways warning of an upcoming location shoot, and of the use of parking spaces by trucks. Often I've never heard of the production companies, the director or producer, or any of the actors.

Helpful hint: If there's a really large crew that is mostly idle, you know it's an American production. Americans always have at least one union member (or equivalent) for each task, plus a few dozen other people with no identifiable function. French productions are invariably strapped for cash, so they have smaller, more active crews.

I remember when Jonathan Demme came to Paris with his entourage to shoot The Truth About Charlie (2002), his very inferior remake of Stanley Donen's Charade (1963). They spent hours during the night shooting what would end up as 30 seconds on the screen, on the banks of the Seine River. There was a guy in a boat who just went up and down on the river to keep the water sparkling (at night, after the excursion boats stop, the slow-moving Seine tends to become mirror smooth). I knew it was an American production because French production companies can barely afford film, and that's with the help of dozens of sponsors (all of which are listed along the bottom of French movie posters, making them look like charity telethons).

Anyway, moving right along … while passing through the Trocadéro plaza not long ago on the way home, I noticed that an extra railing is being installed on the edge of the plaza facing the Eiffel Tower. I guess putting in this railing is a safety necessity, since they waited only 70 years to do it. I presume that it's intended to prevent people from climbing onto the low wall at that location to take pictures, but I'm sure they'll just climb around it, so it's a waste of time and money.

The weather is still unseasonably warm, but other than that it has been very nice. Even the pollution levels have been low. But there's a significant drought in progress, and the experts say that spring in Paris this year may prove to be the driest in over 200 years.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Canal St. Martin

I've finished my video of the Canal Saint Martin. Its just a short video that shows the Port de l'Arsenal, the open market that is held above the canal twice a week, and some of the locks on the canal.

The Canal Saint-Martin is a barge canal that runs roughly north and south in Paris. At the southern end, it starts in a small pleasure harbor called the Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal. From there, it travels underground to roughly the level of the place de la République, at which point it reemerges into the light and passes through a series of locks that raise the water level substantially as the canal moves north. From there it passes into the Bassin de la Villette, a rectangular, man-made lake dating from the 19th century, and then it continues up to La Villette, a large park with a number of attractions. It extends beyond that outside the city, but I've never explored that part.

In my video I show the pleasure harbor first. Some of the boats there are really nice, but their size is constrained by the fact that they must be able to fit through the locks at either end of the harbor (there's one final set of locks at the south end that brings boats down to the level of the Seine River, into which the canal empties). There's a bridge that crosses the harbor and affords a nice view thereof, plus a park on the east side of the harbor, with a single restaurant that is usually crowded.

At the north end of this harbor, the canal disappears into a spooky tunnel that passes directly beneath the place de la Bastille. It continues underground for a considerable distance, with only a few round vents at ground level to light the way. Above the canal, on the surface, is a parkway, part of which becomes one of the largest open markets in Paris two days a week (I show this in the video, too). Eventually the canal comes back out into the open. There are multiple locks along the canal that always seem to fascinate me. About 30 boats a day pass through them on the way up or down the canal.

The canal isn't as important to commerce as it once was, and it was almost replaced by a freeway in the 1970s. Today it's a protected landmark. Although there is substantial traffic on the side streets bordering the canal, which prevents it from being completely peaceful, it's still a nice place for a stroll.

A lot of tourists don't know about the canal. I guess Rick Steves doesn't talk about it enough. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, except for the tourists who miss seeing it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Île de la Cité, and the importance of bandwidth

I've finished yet another video, my longest yet (seen here). It features a few views of things around the Île de la Cité, the central island in the middle of Paris that is the historical heart of the city. Notre-Dame is the biggest attraction on the island, and I show a bit of that, but I also show some side streets, the flower and bird market, and the Pont Neuf.

I don't show the Sainte-Chapelle because it costs money to go in, and there's a long line, and the security is very tiresome (because the national law courts are in the same complex). Also, in hot weather like this, the inside of the chapel is hot enough to make you pass out. The stained glass is very pretty, though, so sooner or later I guess I'll have to get pictures or video.

The island is kind of nice. There's a very pleasant residential area at the west end, around the place Dauphine, and there's another small residential area at the east end. Both are, of course, unaffordably expensive. The average price of real estate in Paris now is about $1200 per square foot, and the prices on the island are far above average. All those nouveaux riches from the Third World are buying up real estate like it's going out of style, and they don't care how much they have to pay. And Paris is small, so there's only so much real estate to go around.

Apart from Notre-Dame, and the Sainte-Chapelle, there's also a flower market, as I've said. The flower market is open every day, but on Sundays it also becomes a bird market, selling both birds and everything that someone with pet birds would need, such as food and cages. The bird market seems to be smaller than it once was, but it's still interesting to see. The flower market is nice because some of the shops are practically jungles of flowers and plants, which I find interesting to walk through (as you'll notice in the video). As always, since this flower market is a few feet off the beaten path of tourists, it only receives about one percent of the traffic.

Indeed, there are lots of spots on the island with no tourists. There are lines outside the Conciergerie (in the same complex as the Sainte-Chapelle) and Notre-Dame, but nobody is walking down the tiny streets nearby. The decline in tourist traffic as you move away from the narrow path defined in the travel guides is as steep as a cliff. In one spot, there are so many tourists that you can barely move; but move twenty feet, and 99% are out of your way. Dare to walk to a different street (even one close and parallel to the touristy street), and there's nobody.

Some of the streets on the island are extremely old, of course, and to some extent this shows, although buildings do tend to be replaced over the centuries. One giveaway is the narrowness of the streets. It seems that the older a street it, the narrower it gets. (The narrowest street in Paris, incidentally, is the rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, in the Latin Quarter, which is so small that you can touch both sides with your outstretched hands.) The place Dauphine is also free of tourists much of the time, even though it features a pretty little park. Another park, the square du Vert-Galant, on the western tip of the island, is beautiful but has far fewer tourists than the area around Notre-Dame. (All of these are in the video.)

Anyway, I think I probably spent four hours or so shooting, for about 90 minutes of raw footage. It took maybe five hours to edit it. But then it took more than three hours to render it, and an incredible eighteen hours to upload it to YouTube!

It's all a problem of bandwidth and horsepower. It takes a lot of computer horsepower to work with video—video editing and rendering are right up there with video games as the top consumers of computer power on the desktop. Everything else pales by comparison. And then there's the issue of getting it from the computer to YouTube, via a broadband connection that is typically 10-30 times slower for uploads than it is for downloads. So uploading 25 minutes of video takes all day. I guess I won't be doing any feature-length videos any time soon. The actual video file, for 25 minutes, was 6 gigabytes in length … an entire DVD in terms of capacity.

Anyway, it's out there now. I got just a tiny bit more inventive for transitions. I have to be careful, though, because the mark of the amateur is the excess use of wild transitions and special effects.