Les Wagons, at Saint Branchs in Touraine, is a unique theatrical space composed of three former SNCF freight wagons, welded together. It can accommodate an audience of up to 110 people. The venture began in the early 2000s, launched by Thierry Tchang Tchong and Anne-Marie Renault, and every month the theatre hosts shows by professional artists, musical or theatrical, and is also a place of cultural exchange, including writing workshops based on short stories and poems. I was honoured to be asked by Anne-Marie Renault and Annie Parot to present myself and my writing on stage, on Friday 3 June 2016. Despite transport strikes and continued flooding in Southern Touraine, there was a good turn-out. However, the musicians who were supposed to perform in the second half of the evening didn’t show up because their instruments were stranded in a flooded basement somewhere. As a result, we held the fort – with a very lively and entertaining exchange with the audience, and a vin d’amitié at the end. Little theatres like Les Wagons have difficulty surviving financially, with very few subsidies, so I wish them well. The venue reminded me of the Norfolk bungalow my family used to stay in when I was a child, which was also composed of three former railway carriages. My thanks to Anne-Marie and Annie for the invitation and a very stimulating discussion.
When my daughter was about seven, we were at a loose end one day and decided on a Magical Mystery Tour. I opened up a map of the local area and asked her to shut her eyes and point. Her finger landed on “Fontenay”, apparently a tiny hamlet near Saint Baud in Touraine. We drove there and were thrilled to find a ruined château, dating back – as I later discovered – to the 15th century and last occupied at the time of the French Revolution. We trudged round it, battling through dense undergrowth, and explored the moat and ruined tower. Some kids were playing there and had seen us. They were hiding, but we could hear their fake animal calls. The place was charged with atmosphere and reminded me of a poem I wrote when I was about 16, the subject being a ruined manor house called “Thistledown Hall”, but also of the château in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes which, though not ruined, was an equally mysterious domain full of magical phenomena.
Yesterday, I was driving around looking for a place to stop and walk the dog when, by a circuitous route, I found myself beside the Fontenay château once again. All of the undergrowth had been cleared, the centuries-old trees chopped down, and the 15th-century tower appeared to be occupied, with proper windows and curtains, while the later 18th-century part of the house was being restored. Three workmen were on high, building the timber frame for a new roof, steep and tall. I was so surprised that I stopped the car and stared. The workmen seemed equally surprised and stopped what they were doing to stare back at me.
When I got home, I told my daughter about this, saying that it was nice that the château had found someone to bring it back to life – half-heartedly trying to convince myself that I actually believed this. She was crestfallen and said that no, it was a tragedy, because we loved it the way it was. I had to admit she was right. It may be a hangover from Romanticism to love ruins, but there is something wonderfully doomladen about human edifices being gradually eroded and engulfed with vegetation, the victory of nature over the works of man. Does everything have to be “saved” and “restored”? Can’t we just let a few secretive châteaux take on a new, overgrown life, a home to foxes, badgers and crows rather than boring old human beings?
It started with an ad on leboncoin.fr, a French small ads site. The table looked like just what I needed for the garden. Four people could easily eat at it, but for me it was more of a breakfast table for two, to put outside the kitchen. It was old, with a classic perforated design, S-shaped decorations on the four legs, and a few innocent spots of rust. I phoned up and arranged to drive the 39km to Noizay, north of Amboise, the following day. The address I was given was in the Chemin Francis Poulenc, in the heart of the wine-growing area beside the Loire.
When I got there, the house was splendid and a big plaque beside the entrance gate announced that the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) had lived there – with spells in Paris – from 1927 until his death. I was greeted by two of Poulenc’s nephews, and the wife of one of them. We looked at the table and talked about Poulenc, and how they remembered that when the weather was fine he liked to take his meals or drinks at this very table on the terrace. The terrace overlooks a small Italianate garden and has a breathtaking view over countryside, with no other houses in sight. This is Vouvray land, vineyard country, with many troglodytic habitations – and indeed this house had cellars that disappeared into the rock.
After much struggling, we got the table into my car with not even a millimetre to spare, I paid the 100€ they were asking, and they invited me into the house, part of which dates back to the 15th century. There was disarray everywhere because they were selling up and moving, but Poulenc’s music room was untouched. There were pictures of him with many famous people, from Max Jacob to Stravinsky, on the walls, an upright and baby grand piano, and a bookcase full of his compositions (see photos below, plus period photos of when Poulenc was alive). One of the nephews enjoyed practising his English on me, and we drank a glass of white wine from their own vineyard, just below the house. It was what they called “un vin tranquil”, a non-sparkling Vouvray, and we discussed how we would translate that very French expression into English. We also discussed how the pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc was founded by the same family.
It was sad seeing the great man’s possessions being parcelled up and moved or sold off, but when I left I promised that I would not forget the history behind my new item of furniture. An hour and a half earlier, when I set off in the car, I had no idea that I’d end up the proud owner of Francis Poulenc’s garden table!
On Saturday 12 March 2016, the Camera Photo Club de Loches celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Espace Agnès Sorel in Loches – with an exhibition, a buffet, interactive events, a huge programme of film projections, speeches by local mayors, and special guests talking about their experiences of film-making and photographing for virtual reality walkthroughs. Click here to view a little video I made to commemorate the event!
Where are the snows of yesteryear? Well, right here. I’ve shot a second film of this morning’s sudden snowfall, and paired it with some music by a blind Japanese musician, Kimio Eto, who died in 2007: this “Koto Snow Fantasy” was recorded in the 60s. The Shinto rapture at the delicate nuances between changing seasons, in art and music, is well-known.
“All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate…
Hashin, Japanese Haiku
Click HERE to see my seasonal hymn to the nature spirits of Touraine.
The twice-weekly market in Loches, Indre-et-Loire, is a tribute to everything that we love about France – wonderful fresh produce, a convivial atmosphere, great restaurants and a thriving café society – though the mythic Café des Arts is currently closed for refurbishment, alas, alack. The market isn’t at its best on a chilly February morning, -4C, but so be it. With no pretensions to high art, I shot a little footage this morning to convey some of the local flavour: click HERE to view it!
Marlon Brando kept hundreds of hours of audio tapes of his own reflections, recorded in meetings, during hypnosis, in therapy and during press interviews. They add up to a magnificent autobiographical account, in his own inimitable voice. The British director Stevan Riley has used them as the foundation of his documentary, Listen to Me Marlon – with a beautiful and elegiac use of archive footage and photos.
Brando tells us, in his own words, about his small-town childhood with his adored but alcoholic mother, and his fear of his violent, intimidating travelling salesman father. It is clear that his biggest debt was to to the actress and teacher Stella Adler, who imported Stanislavski’s Method to the United States – a revolution in stage and particularly screen acting: “everything that you do, make it as real as you can, make it alive, make it tangible.” When Brando was totally unknown, she said to him, “Don’t worry, the world is going to hear from you”. According to Brando, all motion pictures today, all acting today, stems from Stella Adler.
Above all, his thoughts on acting are fascinating, and on how movie actors are mythologised by the public. “It had nothing to do with me. The audience does the work. They are doing the acting.” “We need myths, we live by myths, we die for myths.” He has no illusions about the movie industry: “There are no artists, we are businessmen, we are merchants, and there is no art. Agents, lawyers, publicity people – it’s all bullshit. Money money money. If you think it’s about something else, you’re going to be bruised.“
“Lying for a living, that’s what acting is. All I’ve done is to learn to be aware of the process. All of you are actors, and good actors, because you’re liars. When you’r saying something that you don’t mean, or refraining from saying something that you do mean – that’s acting….. You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility, you lie for love.”
“When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage. Your face is the proscenium arch of the theatre, 30 feet high.”
His remarks on individual films are illuminating. On A Streetcar Named Desire: “There’s nothing about me that’s like Stanley Kowalski – I absolutely hate that person and I couldn’t identify with him.” On Candy: “Probably the worst movie I’ve ever made in my life, Candy. How can you do that to yourself? Haven’t you got any fucking pride left?” We learn that Last Tango in Paris was a film that Bertolucci intended to be about Brando himself – a man who protects his privacy.
What comes across time and again, particularly at the time of his son’s trial for murder and Cheyenne Brando’s suicide, is his extreme shyness and sensitivity. One expression of his rejection of the brutal side of American life was his support of Martin Luther King and the black rights’ movement. Another was his passion for the peace-loving people of Tahiti, initially stirred by looking at library pictures of Tahitians when he was “entranced by their faces, unmanaged faces – that’s where I want to go, that’s where I want to be”. He realised this dream during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty (a film he hated, though his Mr Christian is a delight). This, like so much in his life, comes across as a reaction against his hard, unloving father.
Some more great quotes from the audio tapes:
“You’ve got to be somebody. If you’re not anybody, you’ve committed a sin. And you’re on a goat trail, way out on your own.”
“The neurotic individual’s entire self-esteem shrinks to nothing if he does not receive admiration. To be admired and to be respected is a protection against helplessness and against insignificance. Because he is continually sensing humiliations, it will be difficult for him to have anyone as a friend.”
“The greatest fear an actor has is fear – how you’re going to be judged.”
“Life will have given me the truth, and taken in exchange what’s left of my youth.”
“It took me a while to realise. Unless we look inwards we will never be able to see clearly outwards.”
“I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on psychoanalysis. And those guys do nothing but stick pliers and screwdrivers in your brain.”
“Acting is just making stuff up but that’s OK. Life is a rehearsal, life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, six feet under. So that when I wake up in there I can say ‘do it differently’.”
As is well known, acting became a burden for him: “I’ve taken too many punches. I don’t want to be stressed any more.” In his later film appearances – notable principally for their handsome remuneration – he didn’t even learn the script, relying instead on cue cards or a pocket recorder feeding the lines into his ear. Had it not been for Tahiti and the Tahitians, and what they represented for him, he would have given in to blanket disenchantment. For a man who locked the door to his inner life, these audio tapes – and Riley’s use of them – open it up to an extent that is rare in any biographical documentary.
Love and Mercy (2014) is all about Brian Wilson, the genius behind the falsetto wunderkinder. The true story of how they hit on the falsetto route to celebrity is not explained, but otherwise well-known. Wikipedia can outline his descent from musical genius to paranoid and depressive states better than I can. This film focuses on his relationship with a former beauty queen and car salesroom person whom he fell for when he was washed up and unforgiven, and how she extracted him from the grip of a dominating and malevolent group of people who sought to make money out of their guardianship of him.
The young Wilson is played by the very versatile actor Paul Dano (excellent also in the recent movie Youth) and, older and haggard and world-weary, by the wonderful John Cusack. The chief manipulator is Paul Giamatti. Elizabeth Banks is absolutely perfect, in every gesture – every movement of doubt, or attraction – in her role as his heart’s elected.
I have no idea how close this film is to the real story, though my personal fact checks suggest pretty close. In itself, it is a great film – the cinematography is not startling, but, to the eagle eye, subtle and compelling.
This is a movie about a man who is still alive. I wonder what he thinks of it?
I was gripped – it had a true story to tell, with great studio scenes (clearly well-researched) showing Wilson’s creativity with studio musicians, and a very sensitive treatment of the love life that saved him, a woman who was not just seeking connection with one of history’s greats but truly connected with everything that was weak and- through weakness – strong in the man. It joins my list of authentic recent American biopic movies – i.e. films that forgo formulaic emotional taps for an approach that respects the subject and the reality of what that person experienced.