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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My 2016 Trip to Paris

I traveled to Paris, France for a vacation in October 2016, and kept a travel diary, and wanted to collect my entries together in one post, and to reminisce on how much I enjoyed my visit there.

Day Two (after initially arriving and getting settled in)

Today I explored Montparnasse, St. Germain, and the Opera Quartier. I started with breakfast in a Montparnasse cafe, of a cafe au lait and croissant. I visited the Montparnasse cemetery, where I appreciated how the cemetery was dedicated to Jewish Parisian residents, with stones on graves, Stars of David and Hebrew writing on gravestones, tributes to Holocaust victims and survivors, heroes of the French resistance, etc. I thought it was a beautiful cemetery, and still haven't been to Pere Lachaise yet, the biggest one of all. I also have not seen the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe yet, I just haven't gotten to them yet.

I walked around Montparnasse a lot, and after the cemetery, I stopped in a Catholic Church called the La Chapelle des Tous les Saints, it was nice and small and quiet. I sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg, it was very pretty and sunny there. I walked a lot around St. Germain, and browsed in an Alexander McQueen store, admiring his fashions and chatting with a friendly saleswoman about his designs and Paris Fashion Week. I went to a used record/DVD store and bought CD soundtracks of Love JonesLa Femme NikitaFaraway, So Close!, and Leon. I went to the Forum des Images at Les Halles, thinking it was a film museum, but it was an arthouse movie theater in a shopping center, and I didn't want to bother watching an un-subtitled French film and wasting time.

I didn't like the rich and high fashion parts of Paris, as I felt overwhelmed by it, and preferred the smaller, homey neighborhoods in Belleville and the Marais. I prefer neighborhoods that are like Brooklyn and Queens, not like Park Avenue or SoHo. I felt homesick, missing New York and feeling frustrated when I wasn't being understood in French or having trouble understanding other's French, and speaking English after messing up in French, and trying to find something familiar (and not a McDonald's, I saw some of those around and can have that anytime at home). I just really felt melancholy and unhappy in the fancy parts of Paris, the parts that are seen as the most beautiful.

I really adored the Catholic Church La Eglise de la Madeleine, it was gorgeous, and I felt at peace there. I bought two postcards and a short book at their gift shop, and had a lovely conversation with the British shop seller. I visited the gift shop of the Palais Garnier, and bought two postcards with ballerinas on them.

I had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, of salad with vermicelli rice noodles and a beer.

Day 3

I have been able to get around well speaking basic French when ordering food/drink or asking questions, but here is a stupid mistake I made: in a bakery, I was trying to ask what a certain pastry was, and trying to say "What is this?" What came out was "Qui est la?" Which means, "Who is there?"

The woman at the counter looked confused and asked me "Quoi?" ("What?") I tried to fix it, but it came out as "Qui est ca?" which means "Who is that?"

She just told me what the pastry was, and I bought one, but walking out, I realized I should have said "Qu'est-que ce?" which means "What is this?" I just noted that for next time so I don't sound ridiculous.

Observations about Paris:

There are a ton of motorcycles in the city, not just motorbikes. They can be pretty loud, but are really nice-looking bikes. 

Parisians are not rude, contrary to the stereotype, and are polite if I ask them a question (more so if I start off speaking French and switching to English if I don't know enough French and they can understand English in some capacity). Conversely, Parisians have been polite to me if they ask me a question that I cannot understand and are nice if I respond in French that I don't understand and only speak a little French. 

I hear English-language pop music playing in some places, like when I went to an Irish bar that catered to English speakers, playing music from the UK and America (like Genesis and U2 and stuff like that).

This is the lower tourist season, so I don't hear many English-language tourists. Sometimes I hear an American or British accent, but not often. In my hostel, the other tourists are women in their 20s: two Argentinians (either sisters or close friends) and a Brazilian woman who lives in Geneva. I like how the Argentinian Spanish had this European lilt to it, and myself and the Brazilian woman chatted last night about our struggles with French and our sightseeing.

Day 4

I had a better day today sightseeing. I went to the Latin Quartier, to Place d'Italie (which was not as Italian as I thought it would be), and had a cafe au lait and a banana and Nutella crepe. Then I went to the neighborhood of Bercy to the Cinematheque Francaise, a museum devoted to French film history. It reminded me of the Moving Image Museum in Queens, with early 20th century film equipment, archives on early film techniques, retrospectives of George Melies and the Gaumont film company, and clips of silent films and 1960s French films (the clip playing on a loop had Brigitte Bardot in it), drawings and costumes from the German sci-fi silent classic Metropolis, an exhibit on notable Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa, Ozu, Miyazaki, and other Japanese films; and a library and research room. I adored it, and if I understood French better, I would have browsed more of the books in the library. I bought postcards featuring Jeanne Moreau, Federico Fellini, and Giuletta Masina.

After that, I went to the Marais, and went to the Maison Europeene de la Photographie, to see an exhibit on Herb Ritts. It was nice, though small, and I had seen much of his famous fashion and celebrity photography before. I liked seeing how much of a notable style he had to his work that is hard to describe, but had a very modern and b&w cool look of the 80's and early 90's that was incredibly flattering to his subjects. A video played on a loop of his music video and commercial work edited together like one video, and it made his work look more signature, like the Madonna video for "Cherish" blending into Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You" into Chris Issak's "Wicked Game" into a Calvin Klein commercial and swirling all together. I was a fan of him as a teen, and fantasized about being famous enough to be photographed by him, but he died from HIV-related complications in 2002. He was a visionary artist, and I enjoyed seeing this show, which I heard if via a subway ad in passing.

I mostly hung out in the Marais today, because I really loved how it had a Jewish and Arabic presence with falafel and schnitzel shops, mixed in with small art galleries and smaller high-end fashion, and then the streets around the Bastille were all winding with a lot of hip cafes and boutiques, and I could easily get lost in the narrow and twisting streets (which I did get lost sometimes walking in Paris, but not in a bad way, more just seeing the personal characters of neighborhoods and walking off of my original path). I really prefer smaller neighborhoods with their own cultures, and felt more at ease than when I was on St. Germain and feeling overwhelmed by the upper class world. I had a pita sandwich there, sat in a church for a little bit, walked around more, hung out in a Starbucks to charge my phone and have a green tea, then went back to Belleville, and had a salad for dinner.

On the subway back, I had nice interactions with Parisians. A woman went to hold the same pole as me, then got a static shock and laughed about it with me. Then I later let a woman and her toddler daughter have my seat, and I could understand them a little, the girl was saying in French, “I want to eat," after seeing someone else with food, and the mom saying stuff like "OK, we will eat soon." I liked having short, friendly chats with people in French, and feeling like I passed as a French speaker as long as I didn't have to say a lot, and could pick up on tones and gestures more so. Most of my interactions with locals have been with making purchases or ordering food/drink, so I haven't had much of an connection with people, so these shared moments in the train were nice and made me feel better about connecting through speaking French and not struggling or hesitating as much, just being more at ease when it is about everyday people.

Day 5

I visited Versailles today, and it was lovely. I couldn't afford to see the palace or the gardens, so I took photos from outside the gate, and walked around the town, which is ridiculously pretty. Like it doesn't even look like a real town, more like a pop-up book for tourists to be in a fairytale version of Europe. I enjoyed taking a nearly-hour long train ride to Versailles, passing various French towns and seeing country and suburban life and cute houses. I took photos of the town and a cathedral, which I included here, and enjoyed taking a day trip from the city.

I had dinner in Montmartre, and since I didn't eat all day, I ate two crepes (a ham and cheese one and a chocolate one) and a small cafe au lait. The place was a cute little cafe, with very friendly staff (when I paid up, one guy asked me to stay longer to hang out with them and listen to live music, but I politely declined), and the radio music was a mix of French and English-language pop music, so I heard Mariah Carey's "Without You" and that song that goes "take me to church" by a recent band. Then I walked around Montmartre, seeing the local bustling nightlife, before catching a metro back to my hostel.

Tomorrow is my last day, and I don't have much plans. I likely will see Pere Lachaise, either the Catacombs or a museum of letters and manuscripts by notable authors and artists, take a visit to finally see the Eiffel Tower, and just meander. I really loved seeing Paris, and feel like I saw a lot, even if not everything. I am ready to go home, and miss New York, my loved ones, and my little Sam.

Day 6

I had a good last day in Paris. I visited Pere Lachaise, and enjoyed walking all around and seeing the graves of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and others. The cemeteries there aren't depressing, they are more like celebrations of life with really beautiful headstones (for the rich and famous, anyway). I was surprised to see a grave for a victim of the 2015 terrorist attack, a young woman killed amongst others at the Bataclan. There were tour groups and various other visitors, so it was busier than when I visited the other major Paris cemeteries. It just felt like a very respectful place to be in.

I found a little Creole restaurant in the neighborhood, and had a cafe, as I wasn't in the mood for a meal or having a rich Creole dish. The place was small, but warm with a lovely brown color, and the radio played rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The White Stripes. The manager was this handsome white man who was tall and thin, and reminded me both of Anthony Bourdain (but quiet) and Jim Jarmusch. The other manager was a plump black woman with shoulder-length dreads. I complimented them, saying in French "It's nice to have a Creole restaurant in Paris." :)

Afterwards, I went to the Catacombs, and that was something that was thrilling, nerve-wracking, and amazing. The underbelly of the city was made into a cemetery for 18th century Parisians in the 1800s, as well as a place for casualties of war. I waited on line for an hour, and it was worth it. I was most scared by the winding staircase going down. It is 130 steps of steep stairs with a low ceiling, and it winds so much and goes so deep down ( like 20 meters below), I felt like I was going down into a neverending staircase into hell, and kept taking breaths to calm myself in a small space. 

The Catacombs don't have a tour guide, but rather well-lit passages with arrow directions on the walk, and forbidden entry ways locked up, and I would read signs in French (that I halfway understood) about the 19th century quarries, the water aqueduct built in the 1600s, and then, the many halls full of skulls and bones of ancient Parisians. It was a little unnerving to see so much of the human remains, and arranged like walls on either side of the passageways. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn't take photos, but I didn't want to anyway, it just felt disrespectful to do that, as these were once people. 

In all, I really loved visiting the Catacombs, as I hadn't seen anything else like it before, but it was creepy and I was a little on edge while walking through halls of death. At least the cemeteries don't have the remains on display, and have beautiful artwork on their graves to celebrate life.

I went to see the Eiffel Tower, and it was gorgeous. It looked like a radio antennae from afar, but when I was close to it, I was amazed by its architecture. Just huge and steep and beautiful. I didn't go in it, I just walked around it, but I was just craning my neck up like "Damn." 

I walked alongside the Seine, and by then, my feet were killing me. I got blisters from walking so much, my shoes are roughed up, and I had a large chicken and cheese crepe for dinner, my one real meal of the day (besides a complimentary croissant with the hostel breakfast), and had a nice conversation with the crepe stand salesman, a Pakistani man who let me practice my French with him, and we talked about Paris and New York.

I loved visiting Paris, and seeing so much of the city and practicing my French (for better or for worse) and getting to be on another continent for the first time. I likely will not return, due to costs, so I really wanted to take advantage of this week and see and do as much as I could. I will likely print out my photos so I can put them in an album at home. This truly was a memorable trip.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

My Fan Mail Message on Zebras in America!

I am a fan of the film podcast Zebras in America, and my fan email to them got read on air! I wrote to them about my enjoyment of the podcast and listed my favorite films, albeit being a bit lengthy, so they read an abridged version of my email. It starts at 49:40, after their interview with filmmaker Amir Motlagh.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thoughts on Basquiat

I went to Anthology Film Archives last Saturday and watched Basquiat, the 1996 biopic on the Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. I hadn’t seen it since my teen years, back when I romanticized late 70’s/early 80’s New York for its graffiti art scene, post-punk music, and No Wave film and art scene. I really liked the film a lot. Jeffrey Wright was fantastic as Basquiat, he really had this whole languid, loose vibe to him, creating art randomly all over the place, with a healthy distrust of people exploiting his blackness for their artistic gain. He just felt like the person, not just imitating him.

The film, directed by Julian Schnabel, was great at capturing the early 80’s look of NYC, of how rough the downtown scene looked compared to its expensive trendiness today. The film had an amazing cast of talented indie and character actors, including Parker Posey, Michael Wincott (whose art manager character irritated me for his use of the n-word to describe himself as a gay man), Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, David Bowie in a hilarious portrayal of Andy Warhol as a vacant snob who had this uptalk whine to the end of his words, Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s charming yet messy best friend, Gary Oldman, and others.

One of my favorite performances came from Willem Dafoe, who had a cameo as an electrician/artist in one scene. This had been the first film role I had seen of him when I was a kid, and he just had this likable, working-class vibe to him that I liked, with a rough-looking face and a cigarette-stained voice. 

I was also surprised to see Sam Rockwell in a little bit part as some random street thug that beats up Basquiat, I didn’t know he was in this film. 

Claire Forlani, as Basquiat’s girlfriend, was the worst in this film. She has largely dropped off, and I can see why, because she had no screen presence, had a flat and dull voice, and just seemed so vanilla. Parker Posey as a coolly removed art gallery owner and Courtney Love as some random party girl both had way more charisma and electricity to me, and just fit the film much more realistically that she did. 

I also must have had the soundtrack at some point, because the songs felt so familiar to me, not just that I knew them. The Pogues, Tom Waits, Public Image Ltd, etc. it just felt like music I had on tapes and CDs as a teen, it felt so close to my heart.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Thoughts on A Date for Mad Mary

I really liked A Date for Mad Mary a lot, I found it very emotionally touching. It is a small Irish film directed by Darren Thornton from 2016 about a young woman named Mary (Seána Kerslake) who returns home to her small town after a brief time in prison, and is struggling with wanting to be a supportive maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding amidst having a prickly personality and a rough past. She puts pressure on herself to find a guy to take as a date for the wedding on short-notice, but ends up falling for a female wedding photographer, and doesn’t know how to figure her life out post-prison.

I really felt for Mary, and liked how the film had this very intimate feeling with its camerawork, with a lot of close-up shots of Mary done very handheld-style, like literally following her on her path. She was very torn between wanting to be there for her friend and fit into heteronormativity standards while also wanting to punch anyone who looked at her wrong and shake off town gossip.

Then when she falls for a woman, she still doesn’t know if she can call herself a lesbian, she just likes her and feels less defensive, like her face can relax more and show contentment.

This was a really interesting and nice little movie, and it is available on Hulu to watch.

Thoughts on Miami Blues

I just watched Miami Blues last week. I really liked it a lot. It’s a crime comedy from 1990, directed by George Armitage, in which Alec Baldwin plays a con man who goes around impersonating a cop, busting crimes so he can steal from robbers, as well as killing people, and seemingly just running into one crime after another. He was really funny in playing the absurdity of a guy just winging it on his hustling skills with no plan ahead of him.

Jennifer Jason Leigh played his hooker girlfriend, and played her with a sweet optimism and a charming Southern accent, just wanting to live a straight life and to be normal. It was a nice difference to see Leigh play a more comic character that wasn’t jaded by life or having a twisted dark side, she seemed to really dig into playing this sweet young woman who had a very matter-of-fact attitude about her career as a sex worker while wanting to improve her life through college courses and move on.

And Fred Ward as the cop trailing Baldwin had this salt of the earth grit to him that I liked, seemingly more like a regular person than a movie star. There was a running joke of him with his false teeth that never got old to me, his character had a warm sense of humor about it that made me enjoy following him a lot.

I liked how the film had these warm Florida colors of pink and light green that really evoked the heat of Miami. And it was a nice touch that the camera would switch from stationary to handheld whenever there was an action scene, with wider closeups and a looseness to capture the unpredictability of a crime in action. It made me think of Wong Kar-Wai’s later work with Fallen Angels, with his use of wide-angle handheld shots to capture the absurdity of everyday life in the underbelly of Hong Kong.

This was just an odd and fun film to watch, and I really enjoyed it.

Thoughts on You Were Never Really Here

I saw You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar, We Need To Talk About Kevin), and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lone mercenary hired to rescue young girls from sex traffickers. I really dug the downbeat feel, the heavy synth music by Jonny Greenwood, how the character would use near-obsolete technology like pay phones in a modern world (I wasn’t sure if the film was taking place in modern day until I saw iPhones), the gritty cinematography, the broken-up action scenes where the editing shows the aftermath through the path of violence, and a standout scene seen through the POV of multiple security cameras. It was really great at capturing a brutality in the underworld, and did fit the kind of low-budget grimy action films that I like. I adored Movern Callar back in the early 2000s, and was happy to see Ramsay back in theaters.

But I didn’t like Phoenix in the role, he seemed heavily miscast. His performance was lumbering and dull to me, and he’s been like that in his recent films. There were times when I just thought, “Why should I care what happens to this guy?” I didn’t really feel for him or his personal life with his mother. I got that he was essentially a hired gun and didn’t get attached to people, but I just didn’t find him particularly interesting. I more just liked the downbeat style and blunt brutality of the film more than its protagonist.

I still highly recommend the film if you like these kind of films. And there isn’t any sexual violence against girls or women depicted onscreen, it’s more implied than seen.

Review of Let the Sunshine In

I liked Let the Sunshine In, a new film by Claire Denis, though I didn’t realize it was supposed to be more of a type of romantic comedy, I was seeing it more as a sad movie about a middle-aged woman lonely for love. Juliette Binoche plays a divorced artist named Isabelle who wants to be in love again, and has a series of trysts with men that keep ending in disappointment, with excuses about why they cannot be together. I kept feeling so much for Isabelle, each time her eyes would light up at the possibility of love, only for them to be brimming with tears when it didn’t happen, as the men would say she was charming and attractive, but they didn’t want to “move too fast” and gently let her down with an “I’ll call you.”

Binoche looks absolutely stunning in her fifties, and she plays Isabelle as a sweet but hopelessly naïve character, a person who gets way too excited over each man she dates, projecting him as her new love. She seems more in love with the romance than an actual relationship, and worries that she is too old and missed her time for another relationship.

There are varied funny moments in the film, like the indecisive back and forth with her and a date about whether or not she should exit his car or continue talking about their feelings; a picky date ordering the bartender around with very particular demands and asking if there are gluten-free olives; and Isabelle snapping at her friends on a nature hike after they are being pretentious about their knowledge of the land to appear intellectual, with her yelling at them across a bridge, “It’s all yours! The trees, the sky, the birds, everything belongs to you!” Those moments broke up the momentum of Isabelle continually being hurt by each broken would-be romance.

I liked how Denis would hold on scenes with slow pans or one-take setups, it felt very languid and free, reflecting real life. This was an interesting film, and I’d like to watch more of Denis’ work, as the only other film of hers that I have seen is 35 Shots of Rum from 2008. I stayed for the post-film Q&A with her, and found her to be really charming and funny and quiet, just an intriguing person. Apologies for the poor quality of my image of the discussion.