Short Story Of the Day, Nouvelle Vague by Bill Chance

They would take a purposeful minute of silence every now and then. “If there’s nothing to say, let’s have a minute of silence” was their motto.

—-Bill Chance, Nouvelle Vague

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#15). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Nouvelle Vague

 

Armando loved cars. And his girlfriend Cecile had a great one. Her father had a bit of cash stashed away and bought her a vintage light blue ’65 Mustang Convertible to drive around while she was at school. She used to say, “I live the top down life.”

The two of them also loved film… or more precisely, movies, because they mostly watched them on tape. The VHS format had recently defeated its deathly adversary, the Betamax, and a rental store for the hard-core movie aficionado had opened up near his apartment. The two of them were renting stacks of tapes and working their way through the French New Wave.

Though they lived in a tumbleweed-blown college town in the middle of the great plains they liked to pretend they were in Paris. A greasy spoon was a pale but workable substitute for a Parisian Cafe – one even had sidewalk tables for those few days where the weather wasn’t blowing ice or baking heat. They watched Godard and talked politics over meals and she cut her hair like Anna Karina.

Like all Nouvelle Vague couples they saved their important, passionate conversations for the times they were driving in the car. She named the Mustang Metal Hurlant. They would drive with the top down, sometimes slowly or sometimes sliding around the gravely corners. They would take turns driving and would imagine a camera on the hood shooting through the windshield as they talked about their dreams, argued, or the passenger would lean against the driver and they would cruise in silence.

They would take a purposeful minute of silence every now and then. “If there’s nothing to say, let’s have a minute of silence” was their motto. A minute of silence can be a long time. A real minute of silence takes forever. But they took pride in being able to pull it off.

It took some effort but they learned to dance The Madison. Never found a place in public they could show off.

There was nothing better than driving around with the top down in the twilight evening after a hot day. The convertible made its own breeze and the world was awash in magical colors once the sun set until it became too dark. They kept a little cooler of iced beer cans under the dash and would sneak sips when they knew the cops weren’t watching. Even the condensation on the curved aluminum was beautiful and delicious.

At the end of one of these perfect evenings the night crept down the sky until they had to think of something else to do.

“I know!” Armando said, “Look over there.”

It was the last drive in theater. The VHS tapes had killed the drive in – but there was one last one, hanging on, out there on the edge of town, at the end of time.

They didn’t even look to see what movie was playing, but paid their money and drove in. They were the only customers – the space vast and empty.

“At least we’ll be able to see close,” said Cecile. She drove down right to the front, with the towering white screen rising above them like a fortification. Cecile looked over the door, confused.

“Hey! Where are all the little speakers on poles?”

“Oh, those are long gone,” said Armando, “People kept stealing them. You just tune in on the radio for the sound.”

“This car doesn’t have a radio.”

They drove all the way back to the one spot, right beside the snack bar that still had a speaker. The single employee (who owned the theater and had taken their money earlier) popping corn and filling sodas could keep an eye on that one. They watched the movie on the tiny, distant screen, with nothing but space between.

Still it was nice. And sitting there in that specific instant in that vintage car with the top down watching the last drive in alone (except for the snack bar guy) in that peculiar slice of time they were happy, content and in the moment – blissful and unaware of the tumult and pandemonium that was bearing down on them… on everybody… like a tsunami of insanity – only a few short decades away.

Gervaise

“With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.

Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.”

Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 

Yesterday I finished Zola’s L’Assommoir and enjoyed it a lot. In doing some online research about the book I discovered it had been made into a 1956 French film called Gervaise that wasn’t supposed to be too bad. It was directed by René Clément and starred Maria Schell (sister of Maximilian). I was able to find a copy of the film and waited until I finished the book – then sat down to watch it.

L’Assommoir is a big, complicated, 500 page book and I knew they would have to slim it down to get the story into a movie. They did, but remained faithful to the spirit of the Zola novel. The movie concentrates on Gervaise – not surprisingly – and leaves out a lot of the tumult around her. I really liked the film – despite being over sixty years old (a year older than me) it holds up well. Gervaise’s decent into abject poverty, despair, and destruction is rushed as compared to the book – she is still alive at the end of the film and the book conveys the horrors of her descent better. There is a political subplot added to the movie that wasn’t in the book – and I didn’t think it added much. But otherwise, I thought the movie did a good job and illustrated the look of a lot of the story that I had trouble imagining (having never been to Paris of the Second Empire myself).

Like the book, the movie suffered from prudish editing – luckily the version I found seems mostly uncut (it was 116 minutes long). The biggest difference seems to be in the fight in the wash house between Gervaise and her arch-rival Virginie at the beginning of the story – the version I saw had a bloody scene of Gervaise tearing off Virginie’s earring and then beating her bare bottom with a wooden paddle. Tame by modern standards – those scenes were too much for the 1950’s.

The movie is one of the most expensive (in modern currency) foreign films ever made. The sets are extensive, detailed, and realistic.

And the best thing is that many of the memorable set pieces of the book are preserved. The wedding party and its visit to the Louvre, the horrifying fall her husband takes off a roof on the day she is to buy her shop, Gervaise’s Name-Day feast, Coupou’s alcoholic madness (though transferred from an asylum to Gervaise’s shop – probably more dramatic that way), and most of all the famous fight between Gervaise and Virginie in the wash house – all were giving loving care and exciting treatment.

Gervaise and Virginie going at it in the wash house. Gervaise’s man, Lantier, has just run off with Virginie’s prostitute sister, Adèle.

Virginie about to hit Gervaise with the wooden paddle.

Gervaise has reversed the fight and is about to give Virginie a vicious paddling.

This scene was apparently too much for the censors. Virginie is about to get hers.

The wedding party goes to the Louvre, here Gervaise and Goujet are standing in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life.

A ruined and despairing Gervaise at the end of the film.

Compare this scene to:

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

At least Degas’ woman still has her hat (Gervaise has pawned hers).

 

Reviews of Gervaise:

Adapting Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, René Clément’s Gervaise (1956)

Gervaise: True Grit

GERVAISE – ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE

 

Lawrence of Arabia

The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

—-Lawrence of Arabia

One thing that I like is Fathom Events. It’s a company that shows special screenings on modern theaters. I usually go to their opera events – they stream the New York Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters everywhere.

Upcoming Fathom Events come to me in my email and one caught my eye. They were going to show Lawrence of Arabia. I have seen the film on television now and then – but I’m not sure I had ever watched it start to finish in one setting. I’m quite sure I had never seen it in a theater – especially not in a large modern screen with comfortable seats and food delivered to your seat… and beer.

“I’ve always wanted to see Lawrence of Arabia in a theater,” I told Candy.

“I’ve never heard anyone say that,” was her reply.

So I bought a ticket. I was worried that it would sell out so I bought it a week ahead, and chose a good seat.

On the day I settled in, ordered some chicken wings and a beer. Two guys came in, they had the two seats to the left of me. Another couple was behind us a few rows and a group of four off to the side.

That was it. I can’t believe more people didn’t want to see such a classic film in such a setting. The guy right next to me said, “Um, I’m going to move, nothing personal, but we might as well have some room.” He moved down a few seats on the other side of his friend. I wasn’t offended, of course, but it wrecked havoc with the waiters and the food and the bills and such.

The movie was great, of course. The desert scenes were the real heart of the film, spread out in glorious color across the vast curved screen. The movie is so unique, too. There are no female parts in the movie at all. It doesn’t have the usual epic arc – it’s really a personal story told across an enormous canvas. Key parts of the film are mysterious – it’s hard to say exactly what happened – and that’s another part of the genius.

All in all, a nice afternoon.

Get the Whiskey

So has everybody. Shit happens. Get the whiskey.

—-Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

There is nothing better to make the time go by on an airplane than watching a movie on the little screen on the headrest of the seat in front of you. It’s even better than reading – I have trouble reading on the airplane – there are too many interruptions and I can’t really read when I’m that uncomfortable.

On the way out to Boston, all I wanted to do was sleep – so I chose Aquaman. That did the trick, I kept nodding off.

But on the way back I put a little more thought into it. There were some excellent movies to choose from – some I had wanted to see. But I didn’t really want to see those on the little tiny screen with the wonky headphone jack that I had to push on the wire a certain way to get the sound.

I wanted something that wasn’t bad… but wasn’t too good. Something entertaining without having to think too much.

I chose Bad Times at the El Royale.

I chose well.

I remember when that movie came out – it looked very interesting – and was surprised at its lack of box office. It came and went in a flash without leaving much of a trace. Sometimes these can be hidden gens when they make it to streaming. Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t a gem, not by a long shot, but it is an enjoyable way to kill a few miles between La Guardia and DFW.

It’s one of those retro, noir-y thrillers with a simple story made complex by careful manipulation of point-of-view, time-shifting, and vital information not made available to the audience until the proper amount of confusion is generated. There are twists and turns a-plenty and plenty of unexpected, sudden violence. The good guys aren’t going to win in the end because there aren’t really any good guys (well, maybe one). There are listening devices, hidden corridors with one-way mirrors and a big bag of cash hidden in a most clever way.

It all takes place in the El Royale, an almost bankrupt fleabag hotel/motel located right on the border between two states – you can choose a room in the Nevada wing or the California. A cast of misfits check in and are ultimately faced with a fatal game of roulette with the most handsome Manson-like cult leader of all time (a very buff Chris Hemsworth). I read that Matthew McConaughey was originally going to play that part – that might have catapulted the film into greatness.

As it is, greatness isn’t catapulted into – but it is a fun bit of diversion. Especially for someone trapped in a crowded metal tube hurtling along at unimaginable speed thousands of feet in the air.

 

Never Cursed

Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top. Bacon. Scones, butter, cream, jam. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea…. And some sausages.

—- Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread

 

 

One of the ideas that I had when we decided to Cut the Cord (eliminate cable television) is to rent movies from the library. Free and easy. Our library has a huge selection of DVDs – movies on the ground floor and instructional/educational on the third. I see people, especially families with children, checking out monstrous piles of DVDs – I don’t know how they can watch that many in the seven day allotted period. I used to check out movies, but haven’t in a decade or so.

I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen Phantom Thread yet – a variety of reasons, mostly related to sloth in its various forms. It’s been a year. But as I was at the library on the last day of 2018, returning a stack of books, I looked along the long rows of DVD offerings (shocked at how many I had already seen) until I chose Phantom Thread. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. It was in the running for a number of Oscars – and I don’t give a shit.

I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His work is a gift to the world.

Phantom Thread was reviewed better than his last full film, Inherent Vice. However, I loved Inherent Vice – of course, if you didn’t like it, or you think it was a piece of crap… I won’t argue with you. Paul Thomas Anderson does not know who I am – I have never met him and never will, but somehow he made a film, Inherent Vice, for me individually. If he scanned my dusty noggin and extracted whatever is in there and then made a movie that would resonate… it would be Inherent Vice. Well, actually it would be Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s impossible to put that on celluloid or nitrate or bits-n-bytes. Inherent Vice is as close as you can get in the real world.

So, I pulled out the DVD player, blew off the thick layer of dust and plopped the library disc in. It took some playing with the various remotes but I managed to get it to play in surprisingly good quality.  Excellent film – really needs to be seen twice because, like all truly good films, the first time through you sit there going “What the fuck is this?” Once you realize it’s a twisted rom-com you can enjoy the belly laughs.

I’ll let you enjoy the humor of a persnickety and slightly effeminate dress designer of a main character with mommy issues and surrounded by women (customers, seamstresses, and his sister) lugging the name Reynolds Woodcock around London. Chekhov’s gun makes an early appearance in a book about mushrooms. And the surface beauty masks the perverse melodrama simmering underneath.

So now – a trip back to the library and the return chute and another walk along the DVD aisle. I can’t plan ahead because the films churn quite a bit. Old-School baby!

 

The Screaming Skull

Jenni Whitlock:
Eric, when you found me, what else was there?

Eric Whitlock:
What do you mean, ‘What else?’

Jenni Whitlock:
A skull?

—-from The Screaming Skull

 

As I learn to adjust to a life without cable television, I explored the nether regions of the hundreds of free streaming channels available on the Roku. I haven’t researched it – but it looks like anyone can cobble their own Roku channel together – and there are lots of them. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) these are mostly poorly done and colossal time sucks.

I did stumble across a collection of old, bad, out-of-copyright horror films. These always bring back memories of when I was in sixth grade or so and discovered what that odd round wire antenna-thing that came in the box with new televisions was used for. I had discovered the UHF channels that my parents knew nothing about. I would crawl out of bed after the family was asleep and creep into the darkened kitchen and tune in what I could find on the little portable TV. This included channels dedicated at night to grade Z horror films.

Now, a half-century later, I like to look for these horrid memories from long ago. I thought I remembered one called The Screaming Skull and chose it. Turn’s out I had never seen it – and my life isn’t enriched by seeing it now.

I’m not going to review The Screaming Skull… take my word for it – it’s bad.

 

You know it’s bad from the first scene… a cheap plastic skull rises from a bucket of water bubbling with dry ice and you get:

Narrator:
“The Screaming Skull” is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. It’s impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may *kill* you! Therefore it’s  producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone that dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.

I’m sure they didn’t have to pay out… ever. The movie is simply not scary.

The only good thing is that the main character, despite being poor, drives a seriously cool car, a mid-’50s Mercedes-Benz 190SL Gullwing. The movie brightens every time this car appears. I would love to learn the story about how such an exquisite expensive hunk of steel made in into such a low-budget film.

Mercedes-Benz 190SL from The Screaming Skull

And that’s about it. All the rest sucks.

Looking up information on the film – I didn’t realize that it was satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Going to have to watch that… when I have a lot of free time.

Oh, and it is very loosely based on a short story. I found it online here. Not sure if the story is any better than the film….

Anal Vice

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
—-Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos

Back a few months, with Mother’s Day approaching, I was struggling with figuring out what to do.

I checked the Alamo Drafthouse app on my phone and discovered they were having a Mother’s Day brunch along with a showing of “The Sound of Music.” I remembered that Candy had said once, years ago, that this was one of her favorite musicals. It seemed a little pricey (at first) but I went ahead and bought three tickets. Nick would be up from Houston to visit and that would be a nice mother’s day.

I told Candy (couldn’t really keep it a surprise) and she was worried about Nick.
“I don’t think he’ll like the movie,” she said.

She reminded of one time, years ago, when She, Lee, and I were watching The Sound of Music on TV and Nick walked through the living room.

“What are you watching? What kind of sick stuff is this? What are they singing about? Anal Vice?” he said.

The song, of course, was not “Anal Vice,” but “Edelweiss.”

Alamo Drafthouse is the only movie theater chain we will frequent. The food (and drafts) are good, I love the bits they show before the films, but the real attraction are their policies. One, if they catch you talking or using your phone during the film, they throw you out. Two, and the big one for me, is they do not allow anyone to arrive late. It drives me nuts how, at a regular movie theater, people keep streaming in, searching for their seat, twenty minutes after the show starts. Assigned seats and these policies are the only way to make movie-going worthwhile.

I texted Nick to ask if it was OK for him to see The Sound of Music.

“Y’all paint me as some uncultured brute,” he replied. So he was good to go.

As it turned out, the thing was fantastic. It had seemed pricey at first – but the food was amazing and way more than worth the cost all by itself. The staff came out before the film and explained how hard they had worked on the menu (Austrian themed) and hoped we enjoyed ourselves. The film was sold out and the logistics of getting four courses of food (and wine) out to all those seats in the dark, during a film was incredible.

One good thing is that the film had an intermission and that was when they brought out the main course (Schnitzel, poached eggs, asparagus, tomato) so we could eat that with the house lights up a little. Of course, the movie was fantastic. Your forget how much these classic films were designed to be seen in a theater, on a big screen, and not on a television. Really enjoyable.

So, I’m going to keep an eye on the Alamo Drafthouse to see when they will do something like this again. A close eye – this one sold out in hours. It’s a really special special treat.

Just don’t forget to turn your phone off.

What the Pho?

Lee bought a shirt at Bistro B.

Oblique Strategy: Revaluation (a warm feeling)

Bistro B

Everybody has their Christmas traditions. Ours is to have lunch at Bistro B. I checked my blog archives, and I wrote about Christmas at Bistro B six years ago. You can read it here. It hasn’t changed much and my 2011 description is still good:

The place, as always, was packed. We waited for a few minutes, which I enjoyed. I stood by the little altar with the burning incense spiral, the electric-powered prayer wheels, and the little shrines decorated with offerings of change. I looked around at the tables to see what other folks were ordering. There were a lot of butane portable table burners heating hot pots that were being shared by a whole family – three generations or more – packed around the big round tables. I love watching a family eat, the heads bent, concentrating on the food, with a ballet of chopsticks dancing in a circular chorus while everyone picks up their food, talks, and laughs.

Its a noisy, happy place, with an army of black-clad waiters rushing, cleanup crews pushing a big square cart, a thick crowd at the registers – some clutching inscrutable bills, but most there for take-out. Some odd genre of electronic dance music pulses… loud but barely audible over the conversations, and a phalanx of flat-screen televisions incongruously simultaneously shine out an NFL documentary. The kids reported that the restroom was, “Like a nightclub.”

We were earlier than we usually were – so the place wasn’t completely packed. The menus were new – the numbers only going up to 494. And in the last six years the restroom extravaganza has been toned down more than a bit.

As always, the Christmas-day service was a little rough. There is a new “Taco” section in the menu – Candy ordered one of those. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s new, we haven’t learned how to cook those yet,” was the answer from the waiter. Candy ordered chicken, Nick, Lee, and I ordered Pho. The chicken arrived quickly, but no Pho. A while later, the waiter came by and asked how everything was. “No pho,” we answered. He looked flustered and our three enormous bowls of soup came out in a minute. That’s cool – usually we don’t even get what we order – a busy place with a book for a menu and 494 items – you have to chill a bit.

Spring Rolls and dipping sauce

My soup as it arrived. What mysteries await in these warm waters?

The soup after I added sprouts and other vegetables. Those little eggs were hiding down in a little nest of rice noodles. I don’t know what creature they originally came from

After our food we drove across the city for our second Christmas Tradition – to see a movie. It’s getting so that we will only see films at the Alamo Drafthouse (their no phone-no talking-no arriving late or you will be thrown out is a game-changer) and we took in I,Tonya at the Alamo in the Cedars. They have a nice bar upstairs with a killer view of downtown Dallas.

A nice way to wile away a Christmas day.

The family on the balcony at the Alamo in the Cedars, Dallas, Texas