Culture

"Church Going" Philip Larkin, read by Tom O'Bedlam (The Less Deceived, The Fortune Press, 1955)

A little obvious perhaps, it’s certainly one of the most famous poems written in English, well-known to any school or university literature student, but it’s still one of the most beautiful, especially in this reading. Often it’s stated baldly that this is not a religious poem, or is used to describe the increase of secularisation in Western countries, but the final verses remain ambiguous to me, as if the need - as we have seen in Paris recently - for some kind of communal space, whether it’s linked to religion or culture remains a keep aspect of what it is to be human.

“Bored uninformed knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation--marriage and birth 
And death and thoughts of these--for which was built
This special shell? For though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth 
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in 
If only that so many dead lie round.”

(It pleases me to stand in silence here).

Paris Récit : Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 15th April 2019

Paris, France. Rear of Notre Dame shot from boat moving along Seine. Rear of Notre Dame from bridge. Pigeons, people sitting on benches, camera tilts to recall front of Notre Dame. Exterior of the cathedral’s stain glass window, fades to interior shot. More of the stained glass windows from interior (they appear to glow). More exterior shots of Notre Dame from moving boat. Close ups of gargoyles. Tree lined Seine from moving boat. Fishermen in three tiny stationary boats on Seine (poles protect them). Two barges tethered together travelling along Seine.
— Description of the video

As it always seems to be the case with situations like this, I heard about the fire at Notre-Dame by chance – after seeing a tweet by an American expressing sadness at the sight of the Cathedral on fire. The French Ambassador to the United States in an interview later shared how he was surprised by his reaction – he felt like he, himself was burning. Then he was shocked to realise that he was crying.

The intensity of my own reaction also came as a surprise. I kept thinking about it that night and into the following day. I don’t feel French in any sense, though I’ve lived in Paris for more than a decade and my son has grown up here. I’m not Catholic, even if my parents were and would have identified this way until they felt alienated from the Church after the Second Vatican in the 1960s; none of their children went to Catholic schools. But I grew up in an environment that was influenced by this religious and cultural heritage. With grandparents named Byrne, Prendergast, O’Halloran and Munday how could it be otherwise.

Awkwardly, I tried to find some way of paying respect to the event and how I felt: I shared this video of bells, marking the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary on Twitter - afterwards noticing that some kind of white rights/believer person in the U.S had liked it, unfortunately.

Some time ago I remember reading someone make the comment that people (in the West) are more affected by the loss of heritage – the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 or Daesh laying waste to mosques and museums in Syria and Iraq – than the deaths of people in the same locations. This is true in terms of how journalists approach these stories too, the way they build up the shock-drama element, the sense of pathos.

Perhaps people find it easier to express sadness over the loss of “culture” the same way they are more likely to donate to crises linked to natural disasters rather than political violence. This might reflect cultural bias – or racism – but it could just as much stem from a tendency to lean towards the tragic in an almost literary sense, while seeking to be included in the narrative. Much of the despair expressed worldwide over the fire at Notre-Dame resembled this, with many adding personal recollections of their visits to Paris to their expressions of shock.

Apparently, again gleaned from a cursory look at Twitter there was a reaction to the international expressions of sympathy, with many exhibiting a “fuck France” attitude. Much the same dynamic played out after the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in 2015 - with many feeling frustrated by what they see to be the event’s over-exposure, compared with other like events in poorer parts of the world or where the people affected by it are not predominantly white.

You Retweeted Jacinta Koolmatrie‏ @JKoolmatrie Apr 16

Jacinta Koolmatrie Retweeted Rae Johnston

Can’t help but think about how silent everyone is when it comes to Indigenous heritage. It is destroyed daily but instead of being met by singing and mourning, we are met by armed police #Djabwurrung

Rae Johnston‏Verified account @raejohnston

Devastating news about Notre Dame, a genuine shame to see a beautiful, historic, spiritual place destroyed. In Australia, this happens all the time - usually for the purposes of mining, development or - in the case of the 800+ year old Djab Wurrung birthing trees - a highway.

Historians Alexandre Gady and Claude Gauvard detail in a France Culture video that the Cathedral had been threatened before: during the “terrorist phase” of the French Revolution and then later in 1871 by the Communards, who tried to torch the Cathedral, alongside other buildings in Paris, as the “capital of the reactionary bourgeoisie” (to use their phrase).

During the First World War, the Germans tried to intimidate the French population by targeting Notre-Dame in an air raid but bombed the nearby Saint-Gervais church, leading to 100 deaths. The Nazis during the Occupation didn’t dare “touch” it, being well-aware of its significance for French people.  

The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily.  This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).

But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.

I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).

Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.

But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).

Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty

“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”

… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.   

And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.

These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.  

This is the final piece of music played at Notre-Dame before the fire.    

“Night Comes On” dir. Jordana Spiro (2018; French title “Long Way Home,” 2019)

Some time ago I read a review of a film, the title escapes me now though I remember it well, which referred to the cliché of mould-encrusted bathrooms, seen in panning shots of the dirty tiles, to represent poverty. Not having money, or the time and skills to fix/remove the mould on the tiles, is represented as base, disgusting. The critic mentioned this as being a particular feature of films where poverty is “feminised.”

Aramide A Tinubu, in her Shadow and Act review on Night Comes On (or Long Way Home, to use its French title) refers to the importance of this film about two sisters and their grief for the murdered mother being written and directed by women:

“The importance of a female director and writing team in this coming-of-age film can’t be overstated here. Fishback’s body was never once put on display gratuitously and moments in Angel’s life, one marred with sexual assault and coercion aren’t used as plot points in the script. Still, it was the moments between the sisters, both the snippy banter and the softer connections where Spiro makes her mark as a director. It seems unimaginable that a male writer or director would able be to capture a 10-year-old girl’s horror at her first period and her big sister's detached but comforting reaction.”

Coming home last night after seeing the film that shared the Prix de Jury prize at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, a festival set up in 1975, I thought the same thing. I recognised my gratitude for the fact that one particular sequence – when Angel goes to get a gun – avoided spelling out a stereotypical representation of a woman in a state of duress, where her desperation leads to humiliation and abuse. The writer/director team seemed to be aware of this, moreover, drawing attention to what was expected, for it to be interrupted. When Angel does finally get the gun from the dealer, we are shown her walking away from the car, afterwards. Nothing is shown.

Most of all, I was moved by Dominique Fishback’s performance as Angel. Subtle expressions on her face carried this film, the performance by the non-professional actor playing younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is wonderful too, but Fishback’s characterisation has such depth, it reminded me of some of the great performances from Italian neorealist cinema, where the central female character tries to gain self-worth in an environment that if not explicitly out to undermine her remains indifferent.

I also truly loved the brief moments of connection between the sisters – see the moment when they touch hands in the above trailer at just before one minute; or when Abby sleeps against Angel on the bus (echoing earlier scenes where Angel sleeps alongside her mother, or dreams that she is). Spiro’s skill lies in the way this scene is deeply moving (even though nothing happens) and the fact that it is given more time than the next, which while a key moment in the narrative is undeveloped. This felt authentic and real.

The film is not flawless, some of it felt a bit too “neat” – perhaps even formulaic, made-for-TV in parts – but its simplicity and the performances of the two leads, more than makes up for any of its weaknesses.

Apparently, the English-language title comes from a Leonard Cohen song of the same title from 1984:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow I said,
Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world

Here is an interesting MovieMaker interview from August 2018 where the director Jordana Spiro describes the writing process with Angelica Nwandu:

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond. 

Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.

I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.

MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?

JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.

And an interview with the director and the film’s lead actors linked to the success at Deauville …

To read my writing on films (Barry Jenkins, Chantal Akerman and others) please go to the “cinema” tag.