Friday, May 29, 2009

Hollywood north. And east.


Last night, I met up with my friend Caner for our irregular language exchange that has more-or-less irretrievably morphed into “hanging out.”

As we wandered around the island, we happened upon what looked like a traffic jam – Rue de la fonderie was packed with cars. Strangely, none of the cars had drivers. However, there were a lot of folks bustling about, setting up platforms and turning on spotlights. It appeared that a movie shoot was in town.

We decided to hang around, and watch the spectacle, thus giving me the opportunity to teach Caner the word “rubbernecker.”

I was vaguely hoping that we could insert ourselves into a background scene, but no luck. We spoke to one of the extras – “figurants” – and he told us that he had answered an ad in the local paper. They were paying 100 Euros a day, he said, and – judging from his demeanour and that of some of the other extras hanging around – supplying free booze as well.

In any case, our guy was in a great mood, ignoring instructions to sit in his car in order to light a cigarette and chat with Caner and I: he told us that he’d answered the call for another production that would start filming next month. They liked his casting photo enough that – and here he puffed out his chest – “They are going to make me not a figurant but an acteur.” He then offered us his autograph.

Your gonna be a star! (our new friend, in red)

We managed to suppress our star-struck awe long enough to ask what this movie was about. Well, he said, it was a disaster movie. It was winter (thus why he and the other extras were wearing heavy coats) and “climate change” had somehow knocked out all power across Europe. The only way I can imagine climate change being able to simultaneously knock out nuclear, wind, solar and coal power at the same time is if it melted all of the electrical transmission wires, in which case I’d be less concerned with the lights being out than the fact that my flesh was on fire.

However, plausibility be damned, we were there to see movie magic. And see it we did. As the extras sat in their cars, in front of a fake traffic light affixed to a nearby lamp-post, the director – of course, wearing a pork-pie hat – told a pair of child actors to walk through the cars, pretending to cry. Then he told them to do it again, only with more agitation. Then again, more fearfully. Then again, while a few car horns honked. Once more, while a pair of extras walked in the background. Again, crying less intensely. Again, with the head at a different angle.

Action! Photos and video taken with Caner's cell phone

At some point, genius that I am, I noticed that, although it was supposed to be winter, all of the car windows were open. Presumably, this was so the drivers could hear the director’s instructions. Would they add in the windows in post-production?

I noticed a woman who was badly dressed enough that she was clearly part of the crew. I wandered over and asked her – in French – about the windows, thinking I was quite clever: “I don’t know,” she said, looking at me curiously “The camera is only focused on the one car in front of it anyway.”

Quite right. Trying to salvage the conversation, I asked if she – and presumably the movie crew – was from Paris. Now she gave me a look like I was an idiot: “I’m from Cologne” – which should have been abundantly clear to me from her German accent. I gave one last flailing attempt to redeem myself: “So, what is it you do here?” – “Lights,” she replied. “What do you do with the lights?” She shot me a pitying look: “Whatever needs to be done. Now shhh… they’re starting.”

I took the hint, and slunk off.

Director and crew, doing whatever it is they do

Caner and I stuck around for another half hour, in which time they did a dozen takes of the two boys walking five meters. That bit of film, if it makes it into the movie at all, required 20-odd extras, as many crew, plus a dozen police acting as security. It took about an hour to do, and will last probably five seconds.

I can’t wait to see it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I was winning "ironically," I swear.

This weekend, Amynah and I were invited to a crêpe party. The crêpes - miniature pancakes cooked on a special hotplate in the middle of the dining table, and garnished with cheese, quail’s eggs, meats and what-have-you – were not new to us. However, the after-dinner entertainment was a novelty for us – “Sing Star,” a karaoke videogame.

I’d only sung once before in public, an experience that terminated with the audience pelting me with eggs. No joke. So I wasn’t looking forward to attempting it en Français. Amynah claims to never have sung before in public ever.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be), our hosts had many songs available, many of which were in English. The format pits one singer against the other, with the game measuring your performance and pitch.

I ended up singing about half a dozen times. I apparently cannot manage Barry White nor Louis Armstrong. On the other hand I did fairly well with Sympathy for the Devil, though Amynah channeled her inner-redneck to kick my butt on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

I did however triumph with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoia” (I'm pretty sure because I was able to read the lyrics more quickly than my competitor). I then utterly trashed whatever metalhead credibility I had accrued by blowing them away with a heartfelt rendition of… well, I can’t even bring myself to type it…

Friday, May 22, 2009

Called to the Barr

Spesbourg castle

Yesterday was a holiday in France, and we had company. And so, we rented a car and ventured into the countryside to hit the usual Alsatian countryside highlights: Mont St Odile, Kaysersberg, and the Wine Route, and one of my favourite local castles, Spesbourg.

The castle itself isn't all that interesting - it was built in the 12th century, and occupied by the Andlau family, local nobility. It is smaller, and less well preserved than many other castles decorating the Vosges mountains.

It does have an interesting story though - the knights of the Andlau family were supposed to protect the peasants of the nearby villages. In the 1400s, the villagers of Barr, were scandalized that one of the village girls - who worked as a servant in the castle - had been "dishonoured" by a scion of the Andlau family.

The village of Barr as seen from the castle. Imagine sitting here, watching the mob draw closer...

The villagers grabbed their pitchforks, lit their torches, and marched up the hill, and burned down the castle, mob justice being the only kind they could hope for against the local dukes. Discretion being the better part of valour, the family removed themselves to one of their many other castles, where the neighbours might be a little friendlier.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More hamsters

They didn't want me to write about Obabma's visit to Strasbourg, but for some reason if I pitch
Giant Hamsters the Globe and Mail is all over it. Then again, who can blame them - look at the adorable little guy!

Photo copyright Michel VIEUJEAN-AVES, courtesy Alsace Nature

Monday, May 18, 2009

Take me to the river, dip me in the water

This bridge over the Ill river links Strasbourg’s Grand Ile to the riverbank, connecting at the foot of Old Fishmarket Street, roughly 200 meters from my old apartment. It looks picturesque enough here; as the summer progresses it is afflicted with botanical riots spilling out of flowerboxes mounted on the handrails, while barge-like tour boats push through the silvery water below.

Known today as Pont Corbeau – Raven’s Bridge – five hundred years ago the passage was known as the Supplicants’ Bridge. If a Medieval Strasbourgeois killed someone, and been in possession of such poor judgment as to allow themselves to be caught, they would be brought to this bridge. They would then be induced to take a place inside a small iron cage.

Cage and convict would be suspended by a rope from the bridge, and submerged repeatedly in the filthy, sewage-poisoned river. This would continue until such point that it ceased being entertaining for the crowd that had gathered to mock the killer’s pleas for mercy.

In later years, before the practice was replaced with more “humane” forms of state-sanctioned murder, the practice was largely reserved for adulteresses and prostitutes.

P.S. The cage itself was a later innovation. Whoever first conceived of this form of torture would tie the victim to a board, before dipping them in the water. It’s comforting to know we’ve progressed so far beyond such barbarity today.

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Environment Minister can beat up your Environment minister

I had the opportunity the other day to attend a public debate on France's new ecology policy. Star of the show was Secretary of State for Ecology Chantal Jouanno, who, displayed a masterful command of her subject, a charming demeanour, and impeccable dress sense.

Had she lacked any of those things, it wouldn't have mattered: she is also the former 12-time national karate champion in her class, so it's not like anyone on stage with her was going to criticize her policies too much.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cinema verité

I’d been meaning to do a little write-up on French movie-houses for some time. But with so many things to write about (The cinemas themselves – so numerous and clean! The seats – so comfortable! The popcorn – so not available! The screens – so tiny!) I could not choose but one.

Until I learned about the Star Killer.

The Star Cinema is one of the smaller theaters in town. We don’t go to it too often - it seems to get the less prestigious and/or popular releases of the smaller cinemas on the island.

It is distinguished, however, by it's key role in one of Strasbourg’s most infamous crimes.

Roland Moog was a projectionist in the theatre in 1995. He was dating (or married to) Carole Prin, a cashier at the same theatre. Carole was 8 months pregnant with Roland’s child in May. One night, she called him at work – the baby was coming now. Roland told her to call a cab and go to the maternity hospital, and he would rush there to be by her side. Within minutes, he was at the hospital – but Carole was not. She never showed up.

A massive search was launched, but Carole had disappeared. Given her condition, no one believed that she had simply run away, and suspicion turned to Roland. Though Carole’s body had not been found, he was incarcerated in 1998.

It was not until 1999, when Roland’s twin brother, cleaning out his brother’s garage, came across an old trunk. Opening it, he found Carole’s corpse, together with that of her unborn child.

Brought up for a new trial, Roland tried to claim the death was an accident. Carole had not believed her beau was taking the responsibility that would come with their new child seriously. To prove his seriousness, the projectionist began to devote himself to restoring an old armoire in the basement of the Star Cinema where they both worked. Carole, he explained, misunderstood his project, and threatened to destroy the antique during an argument in the basement. During the struggle, she was killed.

Roland disarticulated her body, wrapped it in garbage bags, and locked it in the self-same trunk, hiding it in the basement of the theatre.

In a film noire twist, Strasbourgeois cinemaphiles blithely enjoyed such contemporary films as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Most Wanted, and Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag, for three years, never knowing that the man sweating in the booth behind them had hidden a terrible secret under their very feet. With the police closing in, he eventually moved Carole’s body his home where it was eventually discovered.

He was sentenced to 25 years in a maximum security prison, Today, he runs the Cinema Appreciation Club for his fellow inmates.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Beech-side dining.

Before commencing my Strasbourg tour I always inform my guests that there are rules, the most important of which is to not ask me about trees. I had to institute this because, while I am confident in my ability to bluff my way through most historical questions, I know nothing about plants, especially trees. Yet, without fail, Canadian visitors will identify my weakness and pick at it like a scab, torturing me with my own incompetence, demanding to species and pruning methods of the arboreal environment. It kills me to admit ignorance, thus the ban.

However, every rule has its exception. There is exactly one tree in all of Strasbourg about which I know anything. It’s a big son-of-a-gun, located near the Pont Couverts in Petit France.

Apparently, in the 1700s, this tree (or another giant of its type on this spot) was a restaurant. Seriously. Officer’s in King Louis’ army stationed in Strasbourg would bring their sweethearts here, lift them up to a platform mounted on the boughs, and have a lovely outdoor meal shrouded in a curtain of greenery.

I’m not sure when the practice stopped (probably around the time that the lawsuit was invented), but in summer, the tree still shelters gourmands dining on the outdoor terrace beneath its canopy. The restaurant there is still called the “Bois Vert.”

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Yes, that is a giant pickle in my pocket, though I'm also happy to see you.

I was going to continue my farewell tour of Strasbourg today with a story about Strasbourg’s Historically Significant Tree but that will have to wait, for I have an appeal for you, my dozen or so loyal readers.

What the heck are these? They arrived in the mail today, from a good friend of mine in Canada. They had no explanation attached. As you can see, they are two bags, each containing a large green item embalmed in a murky liquid. The exterior labels identify them as “Big Papa” and “Hot Mama” pickles, which are helpfully described as “portly” and “sassy,” respectively.

I’ve emailed my friend for an explanation, but haven’t heard back. These are easily the oddest things to arrive unannounced in the mail since Bruno and Gunther the steel-shot-stuffed hand-stitched leather rhinoceroses that mysteriously showed up on our doorstep in 2007.