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France

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Where It Began, I Can’t Begin to Knowin’.

“‘This is the oldest fortified settlement in the present United States,’ said historian and Florida State University alumnus Fletcher Crowe. ‘This fort is older than St. Augustine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. It’s older than the Lost Colony of Virginia by 21 years; older than the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years; and predates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years.'”

Two Florida professors announce they have found the site of Fort Caroline, a French outpost ravaged by the Spanish in 1565, near Darien, Georgia — not near Jacksonville where it was thought to be. ‘The frustrating and often acrimonious quest to find the fort has become a sort of American quest for the Holy Grail by archaeologists, historians and other scholars,’ he noted. ‘The inability to find the fort has made some wonder if it ever existed.'”

But other researchers are saying hold up. “‘It’s not conceivable that the soldiers could have made it to the Altamaha River from St. Augustine in two days…If they are correct, then the Spanish would have moved the St. Augustine settlement 70 miles south, to its present location. There is simply no evidence for this,’ said Meide. ‘This new theory doesn’t stand up to the archaeological and historical information that has been amassed by scholars over the past fifty years.'”

Thus far, archaeologists have yet to scope the newly proposed site. So, with all due respect to fellow historians, I’d probably wait to see what they find first.

Chained to Work.


“‘The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays,’ said John Schmitt, senior economist and co-author of the report. ‘Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked.'”

A new CEPR report finds — once againthat Americans are working inordinately hard. “Workers in the European Union are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Canada and Japan guarantee at least 10 days of paid vacation per year. U.S. workers have no statutory right to paid vacations.”

Donny’s Trip Abroad.


I’ve heard reports that the full movie is so-so. Nonetheless, by way of Open Culture, the Coens’ short contribution to the 2006 Paris, Je T’Aime anthology, Tuileries with Steve Buscemi, is now online. It was new to me.

After Sunset.


You just start with what the feeling is. For this one the feeling definitely started with the handmade aesthetic and charm of Olympia’s work. Instantly I had the idea of doing it in a bookstore after-hours, imagining the lights coming down and these guys off their books…It evolved naturally and it all just started with the feeling.

Director Spike Jonze crafts a stop-motion Parisian love story, Mourir Aupres de Toi, with handbag designer Olympia LeTan. (Fret not: It’s ever-so-slightly less twee than Where the Wild Things Are.)

La Violette Rose du Paris.


He’s had some hits in recent years. (Match Point,
Vicky Christina Barcelona.) And he’s definitely had some misses. (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream.) But, if you haven’t caught it yet, Woody Allen’s ex-pat trifle Midnight in Paris is more than just the Woodster’s most profitable movie ever. It’s the best film he’s put out in at least a decade, and I suspect it’ll probably be one of the Best Picture contenders come Oscar time next spring.

Much like Manhattan, this film begins with a love letter, in the form of a languid montage, to its setting. While (naturally) a jazz ditty plays, we spend the first five minutes or so of the film ambling through the streets, parks, and cafes of the City of Lights, soaking up the Parisian ambience. (This is one of the many reasons I could see Midnight In Paris making a great double bill with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which opened similarly.) As it happens, wandering aimlessly around this city is a favorite hobby of our protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter looking to find inspiration for his first novel in the old corners of gay Paree. Unfortunately, his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t share this proclivity: She prefers cabs, shopping, and expensive jewelry. (If that doesn’t tell you what to expect from her character, her tea party parents — Kurt Fuller and In the Loop‘s Mimi Kennedy — should close the deal.)

And so it is that one night, while Inez is out dancing with a know-it-all acquaintance (Michael Sheen), Gil happens to hitch a ride in a vintage automobile and finds himself at what appears to be a costume party. The thing is, the guy on the piano (Yyves Heck) looks exactly like Cole Porter, the couple he falls in with — the Fitzgeralds of New York — just happen to be called Scott (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and Zelda (Allison Pill), and the gruff guy at the coffee shop (Corey Stoll) they take him to is the spitting image, in word and deed, of Ernest Hemingway. Apparently in Paris, the past isn’t even past… or at least once it’s past midnight.

So, yes, somehow the Lost Generation has been found, and soon enough Gil is relishing the movable feast: He’s getting book tips from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), talking rhinos with Dali (Adrien Brody), running movie ideas by Bunuel (Adrien de Van), and falling in love with one of Picasso’s muses, the lovely Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). All the while, Gil begins to ignore his “real” life in the 21st century as too humdrum and mundane. After all, how you gonna keep Gil on the screenwriting farm after he’s seen Gay Paree? But, if the 21st century isn’t good enough for Gil, why should those madcap 1920’s be good enough for Adrianna? Nostalgia infects us no matter what our time, and so we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past…

As Allen’s fans have already figured out by the second reel, Woody is repeating himself here somewhat. (After a career as long and prolific as his, it’s to be expected!) Replace nostalgia with love of the cinema, and Gil’s time-traveling to the era he idolizes isn’t too far afield from Mia Farrow’s romance with matinee idol Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (For that matter, everything involving Michael Sheen’s pompous academic is set-up for another variation of the Marshall McLuhan joke from Annie Hall.) And Allen has always been one for high-culture namedropping in his writing and films. It’s just that this time, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, and Alice B. Toklas are actual cameos rather than just allusions.

So, yes, Allen may have trod this ground before, but Midnight in Paris nonetheless works, for several reasons. For one, Owen Wilson — an actor I’ve never really felt one way or the other about — is one of the best Allen analogues to come down the pike in awhile. He manages to capture Woody’s usual collection of neuroses while coming across as more charming and self-effacing then Allen really can anymore. For another, the movie doesn’t aspire to deep philosophical truths about relationships and/or the meaning of life (like, say, the existentialism pervading Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors). It has some insightful things to say about the nature of nostalgia, and otherwise just aims to show us a good time. As they say in the closest thing we’ve got to Paris stateside, NYC notwithstanding, laissez les bons temps rouler.

The Bill Paid at Last.


The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable — abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe…[N]ations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.” — John Maynard Keynes

Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.

Le Prisonnier.

“Three fingers on the trigger and the mind is on the plan. I got my prescription, and every citizen got his.” One of the most blatantly Dylanesque ditties to appear in a crime saga since QT popularized Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, Turner Cody’s “Corner of my Room“ delivers a jaunty kick to the middle-going of Jacques Audiard’s otherwise somber and compelling prison tale A Prophet (Un prophete). And, speaking lyrically, it’s a very good choice.

For even as our main character Malik (Tahar Rahim) wiles away years in “the corner of his room” in a French prison, he’s always watching, his mind’s always whirring. A Prophet is possessed of that same quiet, impressive, and inexorable intelligence. Audiard’s movie feels a bit on the long side, and, as you might expect from any movie about life in the Big House (even a French Maison Grande where everyone has separate cells and au bon pain is served on the regular) it can be hard to sit through at times. But it’s also a film that keeps making clever choices, lingering on a small detail or adding that little extra flourish that really makes various scenes resonate.

As A Prophet begins, our young prisoner is being processed for a six-year-stint in the joint for crimes unknown, although it sounds like roughing up a cop was involved. With no family or friends to speak of and a lousy public defender (Rabah Loucif) who just wants the paperwork cleared so he can get paid, Malik enters jail with nothing to his name except a desiccated cigarette and one 50-franc note. How could things get worse? Well, for starters, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the head of the Corsican gang who are the reigning ethnic power in Malik’s prison — may decide he wants an Arab prisoner (Hichem Yacoubi) murdered, and that Malik is just the fresh meat who can get into the Muslim block and get the job done. Hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere.

After wrestling with this dirty deed and its consequences, and picking up an unorthodox roommate, Malik goes from working in the prison’s blue jean factory to being the Corsicans’ new cook, maid, and whipping boy. He starts to make more friends, like Ryad (Adel Bencherif), the testicular cancer survivor who teaches him to read, and Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), the guy to go to for the quality hash. He starts to understand the prison’s racial fissures, like the great divide between the Corsicans (who treat like him an Arab, and who happen to have the guards in their pocket) and the Muslims (who treat him like a Corsican, and whose numbers are growing.) And, particularly after he establishes some friends on the outside, he starts seeing some angles to make some real money…if his Corsican masters will let him and live.

As critics go, I’m not usually a fan of the NYT’s Manohla Dargis, but her blurb in this trailer — “precisely observed” — is a very good way of putting this movie’s main strength. Time and again, A Prophet colors in its margins with small, wordless, and often devastating details. We watch Malik slice up his mouth over and over again as he tries to learn how to squirrel a razor blade in his cheek. After a day-long furlough that brings him to the beach, we see him slowly run the sand from his shoe through his fingers. When Malik one day gets on a flight, he initiates his full-cavity-search rigamarole in the security line, expecting no different from the French TSA than what he gets in prison every night.

Like I said, there are some scenes in A Prophet that can be hard to watch, and a few of the usual arthouse types at my Saturday afternoon viewing walked out. This is prison after all, and no Green Mile Oscar-bait prison either. Still, while I don’t think I’d want to see it again anytime soon, the movie definitely has moments of real grace, beauty, and haunting power. (Along with the aforementioned penchant for great novelistic details, I especially liked some of the deliriously creepy “dream” sequences in Malik’s prison cell, and particularly as they become normalized to him over the years.)

Did I like A Prophet better than Terribly Happy? Hmm, hard to say — they’re very different kinds of films, this one as sprawling and Scorsesean as Happy was lean and Coen-y. But, of the Best Foreign Film nominees in 2010, this was a much more worthwhile flick than The White Ribbon, and if The Secret in Their Eyes is better, it must be really something.

The Great Flood…and a blow to the Annalistes.

“In a period ranging from a few months to two years, the scientists say that 90% of the water was transferred into the basin. ‘This extremely abrupt flood may have involved peak rates of sea level rise in the Mediterranean of more than 10m per day,’ he and his colleagues wrote in the Nature paper.” A new study suggests that, over five million years ago and with an event called the Zanclean flood, the Mediterranean Sea may have been re-formed in as little as two years. “The team estimates the peak flow to have been around 1000 times higher than the present Amazon river at its highest rate.

Coincidentally, two years is about as long as it takes to read Ferdinand Braudel’s seminal two-part history of the Mediterranean. Cut to the chase, man!

Tant Pis, Henri.

“Although this is not yet confirmed, FIFA is expected to use a tried and tested formula for its finals draw for South Africa 2010. The system couples FIFA rankings with performances in the past two finals tournaments to create a group of eight seeds that also includes the hosts.”

With fans of Ireland still smarting after Thierry Henry’s egregious “Main de Dieu” handball last month, ESPN reviews the crop of futbol teams facing off in World Cup 2010. Here’s hoping the unseeded France ends up in this year’s Group of Death…and USA doesn’t!

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