Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lights, Camera, Action!

The symbol of the crowing rooster standing on top of the world has been synonymous for over a hundred and twenty years with...movies and newsreels! Founded by four brothers as the Société Pathé Frères in 1896, it quickly grew to be the world's largest film equipment and production company as well as a major producer of phonograph players and records.

Starting with phonographs, the company moved into the opportunities offered by the fledgling motion picture industry. In 1907, the brothers, spearheaded by the driving force of the eldest, Charles Pathé, acquired the Lumière Brothers' patents and went to work designing a new studio camera as well as making their own film stock.

In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, shown in theatres before the main film began. The crowing rooster began each reel. With a couple of breaks in production, the Pathé news division produced newsreels all the way from 1910 to the 1970s, when television news took over.

Expanding their brand throughout the world, and dominating the market in motion picture cameras and projectors, at one point, 60% of all films were shot with Pathé equipment. The brothers had truly conquered the world!

Alas, after many decades of success, the fortunes of the company began to falter, and by 1929 it had passed into the hands of another owner, followed by another, and another. Financial difficulties and bankruptcies were followed by new owners and new challenges as the company diversified into theatre ownership and television production.  Finally, in 1990, a French conglomerate called "Chargeurs", led by the French business magnate and film producer Jérôme Seydoux, bought the company and changed their own company name to Pathé.

All of which brings us to this building on the rue des Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement, just a few steps from the famous Gobelin tapestry factory. In 2006, the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé  bought this building to house the tens of thousands of artifacts, equipment, and documents that make up the history of Pathé (the actual Pathé films are archived elsewhere). Originally a 19th century music hall theatre, then one of Paris' first cinemas, the building's facade was deemed of historical significance and could not be altered, because Auguste Rodin, as a very young man, had been commissioned to sculpt the figures at the top of each column.  The rest of the building behind the facade, though, was about to undergo a radical transformation.

The celebrated architect, Renzo Piano, was selected to undertake this transformation, no easy task given the narrow confines of the building footprint, and the extremely close proximity of the neighboring apartment buildings. And the front facade had to stay the same. An early sketch of his shows his intriguing mind at work, however.

This side-view schematic gives a glimpse of what was to come. Originally, the back part of the lot was completely taken up with the cinema theatre itself which abutted the walls of the building behind. Piano's design reduces the building's footprint and reclaims a substantial amount of "open" space, with birch trees and a "vinca" ground cover giving light and air. The floors go from a basement screening room to a ground floor gallery space for temporary exhibitions, a first floor permanent display of artifacts, followed by two floors of document archives, and at the very top office space for staff.

And the building shape?  To me, its ovoid, curved shape took on an almost egg-like appearance -- perhaps symbolizing the fact that the archival contents of the building represent the history and legacy of the "birth" of cinema here in France. (Matthew quickly reminded me that roosters don't lay eggs!)

Here, with construction well underway, you can see the underlying framework struts anchored on just a few supports, clad with glass panels on the upper floors, and then -- on the outside -- the whole structure is covered with 5000 perforated aluminum louvers.

It has been dubbed by some as a "glass, armadillo-shaped dome"! On the day we visited -- a grey rainy day last week -- the birch trees stood bare, with just a bird's nest on the upper left tree sending a signal that spring would some day arrive. During daytime, the outer tiles provide privacy to those working within...

...but at night when the lights are on, the whole building emits a soft, warm presence like some giant glow worm sheltering the neighborhood.

The most dramatic way to experience the building, though, is when the elevator stops at the top floor and you step out into a space that is flooded on all sides by overwhelming light. The perforated aluminum louvers disappear and you are left with the feeling that you are floating above the city, with the adjacent buildings "shimmering" through the wooden struts.

Looking down the length of this work space and beyond, you have the impression of being under a ship's hull. In fact, Renzo Piano was born in the Italian port city of Genoa. Its extensive world of ship yards and boat building clearly had an influence.

Half a floor down from the very top, a meeting room takes the "prow" position of Piano's vessel.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the building itself would overwhelm whatever it contained. Happily, that is not so. The day we were there, we were treated to an extensive exhibition of movie posters by the Brazilian artist, Cândido de Faria. 

One of the first artists to design posters for the cinema, he created hundreds of beautiful, enticing advertisements for the Pathé brothers, many of which were on display.

Meanwhile the first floor gallery, which stretches the length of the building, houses the Foundation's permanent exhibition of 500 cameras, projectors, film re-wind machines, film developing machines, lantern slide projectors, etc., dating from 1896 all the way to the 1980s. 

An early phonograph machine reminded us that Charles Pathé's original interest was in phonographs and record production before he moved on to the world of cinema.

I loved the simplicity of this film re-wind machine, and I'm thinking it was also a footage counter.

Believe it or not, Matthew has this exact same "pip-of-a-rig" Baby Pathé projector from 1925 in his office in Inverness. He found it at a flea market in the States many years ago.

This 1912 projector, with its case behind it, looks almost like my old Singer sewing machine, and, indeed, sewing machine covers to this day look exactly like the "coffret" for this projector. 

If you had a Pathé Baby camera and projector, you could also develop your own film, which would have been 9.5 mm at that time.

 One whole corner of the room was taken up with early cameras and tripods. You can just picture all those newsreel cameramen with their cloth caps, cranking away as they recorded the latest "hot news"!

Our final stop was the "state of the art" screening room in the lower level, named the "Salle Charles Pathé" in honor of the founder. Principally dedicated to silent movies (of the 10,000 films in the Pathé catalogue, 9000 are silent films), screenings are regularly scheduled, accompanied always by a pianist.

Our group was treated to a screening of a 1917 German film, "Doctor Hart's Journal", a classic silent movie drama. The piano accompaniment (by a lovely young woman) followed every frame as we were swept along through brutal WWI trench warfare, badly wounded soldiers, primitive field hospitals with the noble Dr. Hart doing his best to repair the wounded, heart-breaking longings from the young heroine, and a final happy ending. The movie lasted 65 minutes and the pianist did not break off once during that time.  A great way to end our tour of this remarkable building and its beautifully preserved artifacts.

But it is now time for me to "break off" the blog for this year. We are scheduled to fly home next week, although that is currently in the hands of Air France which is in the midst of rolling strikes. We have our fingers crossed, but meanwhile, thanks as always for following along, for writing comments, sending emails, etc. As they say in the movie business:


Au Revoir!


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Normans!

We recently spent a couple of days in Normandy, that big north-western region of France, with a beautiful coastline--chalky and rugged in places--wide smooth beaches, and miles and miles of lush farm lands. Home of Camembert and Calvados, Deauville and Rouen. And home to the Normans -- those fierce, warrior "Norsemen" who came from Denmark and Norway in the 10th century. Our destination, it turned out, had a connection to those early settlers.

Courtesy of our lovely neighbors downstairs, we received a gift certificate for one night at a Relais & Chateaux hotel of our choice. Browsing through the catalogue, we came across the Chateau d'Audrieu, near Caen in Normandy. It looked beautiful, and as we had been meaning to visit Caen for a long time, we promptly booked our room, and our train tickets.

We've always been super impressed with the French train system, always easy, always smooth. So, we were somewhat surprised when -- just outside the small town of La Bonneville sur Iton -- our train came to a dead stop, and didn't move again!

The PA system crackled -- "un problème electrique".  We sat tight for about thirty minutes, with a few more messages saying that they were working on the electrical problem. Finally, we (all 300 passengers) were instructed to gather our belongings and make our way to the front of the train.

By some stroke of good fortune, the engineers had coaxed the train to this tiny station and just managed to get the engine and the first carriage into the station itself. Which meant we could all descend from the first car onto the platform, instead of the train tracks...

...then climb up the stairs to cross over to the other side of the tracks.

Our ailing train stretched forlornly on the right into the distance. Stationary and silent. But there was another train going in the opposite direction, that was ready and raring to go. So, all 300 of us crammed into that train and started heading back to Paris!

After about twenty minutes, this train pulled into the town of Evereux. We were all instructed to disembark (again!) and wait on the platform for the next train going once more to Caen and Cherbourg! Amazingly, only one amongst the 300 passengers freaked out at all the delays. Everyone else stayed calm, and even the sun peaked out a bit as we waited.

In fact, by the time the new train arrived and we all piled in (most of us finding seats), the atmosphere was positively jolly, and we were soon on our way again, finally arriving at Caen a mere two hours late!

We picked up our rental car and quickly headed out of town toward the tiny hamlet of Audrieu with the spire of its lovely Gothic 12th century Église Notre-Dame d'Audrieu, rising up above the surrounding farm fields. The village itself dates back to classical antiquity when it was known as Alderium. A few traces of Gallo-Roman dwellings still exist, along with a feudal motte.

Our destination, though, was the stunning 18th century Chateau d'Audrieu, just outside the village, with its imposing gates and elegant driveway leading to what is now a many-starred hotel.

The chateau did not always look like this. Back in the 11th century, this most famous of Normans, the Norman King William II (known to all English children as "he of Conqueror fame" and "1066 and all that"), had a cook who owned this land and built a dwelling on it. The cook's name was William de Percy, and according to legend, he participated in the Battle of Hastings alongside The Conqueror William!

Perhaps William de Percy is on one of these boats, heading for Hastings, where some stories say he felled several Saxons with a metal colander! Be that as it may, he apparently distinguished himself on the battlefield, was dubbed a Baron, and founded what became the illustrious family of the Percys, Dukes of Northumberland, who still exist today in England. Back in the 11th century, though, he contented himself with building a modest half-timbered residence in Audrieu that became home to the Percys for the next 300 years.

Following the Hundred Years' War, which devastated Normandy, those Percys who remained in the region replaced the feudal motte with a proper castle. Today, an outbuilding remains, as well as the two existing wings of the chateau which were refurbished when the central wing was put up in the 18th century.

The chateau passed from the Percys to the Séran family in the 16th century, the head of which was a gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. It was sold during the Revolution but then returned back to the Séran family during the Bourbon Revolution. It remained in the hands of descendants of this family until almost the present day!

Like much of the area, Audrieu suffered during WWII. The 12th Reconnaisance Batallion of the German Army established its headquarters in the Chateau. Following the Normandy landings, intense bombing almost destroyed the buildings. For weeks it was a no man's land between enemy lines, hit by British and Canadians from one side and by German Panzer divisions from the other.

The Chateau itself survived, but many Canadian and British soldiers died in the clearings, forests and orchards surrounding the castle.  And many of the ancient trees were destroyed. Those that survived still display big bulges, some are riddled with shell splinters.

Today, the scene is peaceful and bucolic: quiet fields, apple orchards, small communes. Listed as an historical monument in 1967, the Chateau became a 5-star hotel in the late 70s, joining the prestigious Relais et Chateaux Association. Since then, it has welcomed guests from around the globe, offering a truly lovely escape from the outside world.

For those who want a room really "away from it all", there is a luxurious tree house, complete with a winding stairway, although I did not see a drawbridge at the bottom!

Our lovely room in the Chateau's west wing looked onto green lawns, and away at the end of a gravel path, a spa welcomed us with soothing treatments!

The hotel had just opened its doors for the 2018 season the week before, and we found we were the only guests in the West Wing, and there was just one other couple in the East Wing! The staff outnumbered us by at least twenty to one!  Not quite a Stephen King novel, but the hallways were very silent...

That being said, we had a wonderful dinner, met  and  congratulated the chef (a Norman himself!), had a peaceful and comfortable night's sleep, a lovely solo breakfast in the morning, and left with a bottle of their delicious apple juice, made from their own apple orchards.

But we were not finished with Audrieu's surrounding villages. On our way back to Caen, we detoured to visit this magnificent Abbaye Saint-Martin de Mondaye, seen today in its 18th Century splendor, but originally built by none other than the Percy Family in 1202.

The monks belong to the Order of Prémontré, founded by St. Norbert in the 1100s, who follow the teachings of St. Augustine.

Every day, the monks file into this lofty space to pray and lift their voices in plain chant. I would love to have heard them!

A very beautiful side Chapel of the Holy Sacrament is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

Reluctantly, we steered ourselves away from this quiet rural backwater and got onto the busy N13 highway for Caen, where we had one more stop before we took the train back to Paris.

We had always heard that the Memorial Peace Museum in Caen was the most important museum devoted to the history of WWII, and with help from Ms. Waze, we successfully navigated our way there through the outskirts of the city. Built on the site of an old bunker, the Memorial was inaugurated on June 6, 1988 (the 44th anniversary of D-Day) by President François Mitterrand. You enter through a small door in a long flat facade, which symbolizes the Allies' breach of the "impregnable" Nazi Atlantic Wall. Inscribed in French across the facade are these words:

La douleur m'a brisée
La fraternité m'a relevée 
De ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté

A rough English translation: "The pain broke me, Brotherhood lifted me up, From my wounds Liberty burst forth like a torrent ".

From the narrow entrance you enter into a spacious lobby, dominated by a 1941 Hawker Typhoon used by the RAF.

Leaving the lobby, the museum itself is entered via a descending spiral staircase - symbolizing the descent into the hell of war. The English artist, Christopher Nevinsson, made this striking dry point etching,  titled "Return to the Trenches" in 1916, no doubt based on his experiences as an ambulance driver in France.

There are maps showing the newly drawn borders of Europe after WWI, so many new countries, Germany greatly reduced...

...familiar photographs appear, signalling the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s (where it seems, today, to be happening all over again)...

...and the rise of Nazi power during the same time frame, signalling the dangers that lay ahead...

...marches took place in London by members of the Communist Party, warning where fascism would lead...

...there is even a Neville Chamberlain commemorative plate, billing him as "the peacemaker".  All too familiar a slogan to those of us who have seen the movie, "Darkest Hours".

Once at the bottom of the ramp, the space opens up with a huge array of artifacts...
...lots of propaganda posters, spectacular video clips of the D-Day allied landings on a split screen alongside footage of the German perspective, models of bunkers, battleships and battlefields, uniforms from all sides of the conflict, etc. etc. A vast panoply brutally revealing all the lessons not learned from WWI.

It was soon overwhelming, and I found myself focussing in on items that I (as a very young child) remember: like gas masks. Every member of the family had one. In our house, they were kept on a table in the front hall.
Everyone had ration books, both in France and in England. These allotted you basic food needs and clothing. If, like my mother, you gave up your egg ration and had chickens in the back garden, then you would be given coupons for chicken feed!

Aaahh, tapioca!

Then there were supplies that were "dropped" to the French Resistance...

...a radio set disguised in an attache case...

...and everything you would need to make up false ID papers.

One large section of the museum is devoted to the Holocaust, by far the most sobering and painful to walk through...

...followed by the pain and torment of the Siege of Stalingrad, as depicted in this monumental painting by the Austrian Hans Sontheimer. Rendered in 1944, it depicts the fighting in the Stalingrad suburbs in 1942, described as an "allegory of German military defeat".

After almost three hours, we couldn't really "see" any more. We did dip into the section that covers the Normandy landings. We visited these beaches a few years ago, but had never fully understood how the city of Caen was in a direct line from them.

By the time the  city was liberated in early July 1944 by British and Canadian troops, there was little left to it. The population of 60,000 had dropped to around 17,000 as people fled the fighting.

It took many years after the war, but today, Caen is a bustling, modern University city with a population of over 100,000. It stands as a symbol of recovery.  In fact, the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit returned to Caen during the rebuilding to produce a film, aptly titled You Can't Kill a City. No wonder, the Memorial Peace Museum is situated there. It represents a deeply thoughtful meditation on the evils of war, and the importance of keeping up the struggle for peace.

As we rode back to Paris on (thank goodness) an uneventful train journey, I really had to admire the resilience of these Normans, who throughout their long history from the 10th century through the Hundred Years War, all the way down to those brutal months in 1944, have managed to survive and flourish. William the Conqueror, who is buried in the Cathedral in Caen, must be impressed.

À bientôt!