It is that time of the year – the almost measureless drag between Christmas and the New Year – when British media outlets love to fill airtime with largely meaningless but cheap-to-produce programmes that offer us a low down of the “best” of the past year. Books, television, celebrities, technology, cars and, of course, film.
2007 has, for me, been a fantastic year for new films. I’ve dotted about the place and watched many films in many cinemas in several different countries. Some cinemas, like the basement screen of L’Odyssée in Strasbourg were tatty, uncomfortable and poorly designed boxes in which to savour a good film. But as we all know, those are often the ideal specifications for a cinema; if you happen to fancy snuggling up with your companion during the film, you appreciate the fact that the arm rests have begun to fall off the chairs, many of which now recline further back than they were ever meant to. Other cinemas, like the Scotiabank Theatre in Edmonton, were just stupidly priced because they know that in a -30ºC snowstorm, once the customers are in the door they’re very unlikely to turn around and go somewhere else. Close to my heart is my long term love affair with the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. This four and a half screen arts cinema is arguably one of the best independent cinemas outside London, perhaps made even better than those in the capital because the cumulative effect of the Showroom cinema, the Showroom café-bar, the Showroom restaurant and several excellent festivals and events throughout the year contribute a tangible year-round buzz to Sheffield’s arts scene. So proud am I of the Showroom, I’m also a student member, and I’m there at least two, if not three times a week when I’m in town.
The outspoken but rarely ‘off’ film critic Mark Kermode passed judgement on a number of films over the last few weeks on Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 programme (and also on his own podcast), and tonight on BBC television the arrogant and unjustifiably expensive Jonathan Ross threw in his two pennies on the final Film 2007 of the year. Together, these programmes reminded me of some the entertaining, intriguing and stimulating films that I’ve enjoyed in cinemas this year.
The Lives Of Others was, with a cast unknown outside Germany, earth-shatteringly good and well within the realms of being classified good enough to buy on DVD. The Last King Of Scotland was brilliantly told and justifiably stolen by two incredible lead performances – Forest Whittaker had every reason to expect the BAFTA and Oscar he received. Control blasted into cinema screens across Britain and united audiences who were old enough to remember Joy Division and those who will now go out and buy the albums in chronological order. Not in a long time has a British film evoked such emotion or made me proud to recommend it to friends beyond these shores. Michael Clayton surprised me, as did George Clooney in the lead role. Established Holywood stars don’t have to work too hard to maintain an income once they’re successful, so for every Clooney who makes an effort to keep pushing the envelope, I am grateful. The first installment of Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant series of graphic novels Persepolis has been brought to the screen with both faith to the original and an inventiveness which builds on the book – I thoroughly enjoyed the original version in French (as will anyone who has read the book, regardless of their French) and look forward to the English version coming out in 2008. The love story (and unashamed publicity vehicle for Frames frontman Glen Hansard) Once was so sickly sweet it could cure a sore throat, but at least it was that most precious of things – a deftly constructed but beautifully simple love story that didn’t need anger or sex scenes to justify its purpose. Children Of Men was one of the first films that I saw this year, and it was also one of the last: it is that good that I have broken my normal standards and seen it twice in a relatively short space of time. Technically unprecedented, it compensates for some unforgivable indulgences with ambition and remarkable vision.
One question remains for all these end of year television and radio specials. Simon Mayo asked it of Mark Kermode, and Jonathan Ross asked it of his two guests tonight. What is your film of 2007? Perhaps not the best film, but what is your film of 2007?
I would have been fourteen or fifteen years old when I saw my first Cohen Brothers film: Fargo. By dint of an indulgent pre-Christmas season of ‘snow’ themed films at the Showroom I recently got to see it again. The print that had been secured for the screening had obviously been projected onto cinema screens up and down the country many thousands of times. As each reel started and finished, the screen became touched a massive cloud of buzzing black specks, like insects that had suddenly swarmed on the strange snow covered towns of northern Minnesota in which the film is set. The opening sequence, in which Jerry Lundegaard towns a “burnt umber Sierra” through a completely snowed out landscape was transformed from the virginal winter purity of the film I know so well on digitally perfected DVD. The specks did not detract from the film so much as remind me of what was there beneath them.
But I digress. Even as a teenager I was sensitive to on screen violence, and Fargo sank deep inside me because of the brief moments of unjustifiable and remorseless violence. Only with time have I come to appreciate the bigger structure of the film, and the subtle character deliveries of William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand. How could have predicted that the gentle hero of a thriller could be a pregnant small town police officer who doesn’t even appear until the second half of the story?
With this in mind, my film of 2007, then, is probably going to be someone else’s film of 2008. That’s because it opens in the UK on 18 January; I just happened to catch it while killing time in Edmonton back in November. The Fargo Brothers are back, and they’re bringing with them a film that will win them some significant metalwork. If you don’t know Javier Bardem, you will very soon. He is about to appear on our screens as the most terrifying psychopath to ever stalk a film’s supposed ‘hero’. Showroom members (£16 / annum) can see it for £2 on the day it opens. I’ll be there, because a film as phenomenally constructed as No Country For Old Men deserves a second viewing.
On my last evening in Strasbourg, I was able to finish packing my French life into boxes and suitcases, leaving only the echoing shell of the room I’d rented for five months. Seven kilos of books were dispatched by surface post, a bulky bag of pillows and bed linen had already gone ahead of me, and I was ‘just’ left with a suitcase, a backpack and two lightweight bags. That was already two bags over the limit, but I was more worried about being able to physically walk the five hundred metres to the station that whether or not I would be allowed to board the train with that much luggage.
Many of the close friends that I made in Strasbourg had already left the city by my last evening. But a few remained and I found them at the bottom of a verdant walled garden in the Krutenau district of town. Co-ordinating my arrival via mobile phone, I was directed towards a big double gate that opened as I approached, and allowed me into the quiet aromatic garden behind a forgettable row of houses. I took a drink, and shared non-conversations about packing, traveling and temporality with some of the other people there. As the sun set over Strasbourg, it got darker until it was no longer possible to identify the faces of the people sitting across the garden table from me. My final reams of spoken French were distributed, and the cool evening air lifted the sweat and toil generated by a frantic day of packing.
I was among the first people to leave, making my excuses, thanking those good friends who have been with me throughout my semester in Strasbourg, and quietly slipping out into the night after one final farewell. Laden with some emotion, there was no doubt in my mind that it was time to leave. Like those other cities where I have lived, Strasbourg will bring me many happy memories, but unlike them inspires in me no desire to return.
A few days earlier I had exorcised the stress and difficulties of my final weeks with a late night walk through the city streets, that ended with a tired slump on a park bench on Place Broglie. Tonight, as I traversed the city centre for the last time, I retraced some of the narrow streets that I had walked along so many times before.
As I neared Place Broglie, however, something very strange happened. I suddenly became aware that the city was much darker than usual. Walking along familiar lanes where there is little traffic, I realised that it was unusually difficult to make out the details of windows, doorways and shutters. With only the light seeping out of restaurants, bars and the open windows of apartments above, I realised that over a sizeable proportion of Strasbourg’s grande isle, every public streetlight was extinguished.
Nearing midnight in my last night in Strasbourg, I walked ‘home’ through the specially darkened lanes, hoping to empty my pockets of the mixed feelings this city has left in me.
As if it were an alarm clock piercing my skull, I was awoken the other night by the roaring sound of a highly tuned car accelerating away down the street below. Through the open windows of the hot early summer night, the gentle cooling breeze wafted over my skin and brought to my suddenly open senses the sound of the car as it hurled itself away from me.
Seconds later, my ears received another sound: the horrific high-pitch squeal of brakes being slammed into action by the driver of the same car. All four wheels scrabbled to grip the tarmac, probably leaving four fine strips of their rubber on the cooling road surface. I closed my eyes, and fought images of that terrible moment six years ago when I lost control of my parent’s car and collided with another, just a month after passing my driving test. The expensive sound of metal, glass and plastic meeting with metal, glass and plastic was burned permanently into my cerebral cortex, and as I lie there in the sweltering Strasbourg night, I predicted in my head the sound that would surely follow.
The car, by this time, out of sight from window, failed to stop in time. The chorus of four squealing tyres was halted abruptly by that unforgettable sound as the car collided violently with another.
Suddenly there was silence. Not even the sound of car doors being opened or closed. No sirens, no crunching glass, no voices.
Awakened, I got up and walked through the apartment to the windows that look down onto the street. Craning my neck as far as I could see in both directions, there was no sign of any traffic, and no sign of the accident I had just heard. A humid sky was dispersing in the dark early hours, and it seemed that I was the only one who had been woken by the sound and subsequent uncontrollable surge of adrenaline. I stood half naked at the window waiting for confirmation that this was not a particularly lucid dream that had torn me from my already fitful sleep. Nothing came to the assistance of my confused mind.
I returned to bed, and did not sleep.
Ah, how the child in me laughed. After another long day of meandering through the streets of Paris, what could be a better refreshment than a nice, long, cold Pschitt?
There being little more than three weeks left until the end of term, last weekend seemed as inconvenient as any a time to go to Paris. I was determined to survive this trip without the food poisoning and drunken tourists that turned my last trip into a twenty-four hour disaster. To help with this, I watched what I ate and avoided all youth hostels without fire escapes. Luckily for me I was able to call upon the unwavering hospitality of friends-of-friends just outside the city.
So instead of the disastrous hostel experience I had near Gare du nord last time, I stayed here. Well, not this exact building, but near-by, in the surreal banlieu of Cérgy. What you see above is a particularly bizarre social housing complex. It might look like a crass commercial development on the outskirts of some small town, but those are, in fact, four storey low income council apartments, wrapped in a glass and stone skin. They were designed by Ricardo Bofill in the mid-eighties, presumably as a drunken monument to Versailles, which is not far away.
Señor Bofill obviously believes that all social ills can be cured with a bit of architectural façadism, and maybe a meaningless phallic monument as well. So he built this giant semi-circular monstosity, slapped on some misinterpreted classical decoration and slammed a giant f— off white marble column in the middle, which (wait for it) shines a laser beam towards Paris at night.
No seriously, it does. It would have been laughing out loud if I had not been accompanied by the proud local resident with whom I stayed (who, incidentally, lives in a much nicer part of Cérgy… a part that looks more like Milton Keynes than the backdrop of Clockwork Orange). If you stand where I took this photo and turn through 180º, you’ll see a continuous white footpath that descends a gentle hill and then drops into a large public park, all green and lush around the shores of a big lake. And on a clear day, you can see the grand arch of La Défense in Paris, about 40km away.
If you want to go and see this wondrous piece of architectural madness, ride the RER-A train to the terminus at Cergy-le-Haut. Just be sure not to go after dark, because this area has (like many of Paris’ low income suburbs) had some problems. So much so that the police have had to turn one of the buildings just of shot into a small station.
The ‘heart’ of Cérgy is around and directly above the third last RER station at Cérgy-Préfecture, where you’ll find the usual big bad concrete French suburb from the sixties. Think of lots of interconnected tower blocks, vast pedestrianised plazas on stilts and plentiful weeds growing through cracked pavement. The French embraced the dream of modern suburban living with open arms, and you’ll find these decripit suburbs all around the outskirts of Paris. To give you an idea of how hard it is to find your way around this pedestrianised complex of walkways, bridges and plazas, here’s the map we printed off to help us find the apartment when we arrived on the train.
One of the town planners must have fancied himself as a bit of an M.C. Escher fan.
My hosts proudly showed me the locally-produced guidebook to Cérgy. This building (above right) is one of particular pride as an architectural monument. It’s an upside down pyramid, you see, which probably means something – especially as it’s the home of the town hall and council offices.
I also saw the Villa Savoye, not far away from Cérgy in the slightly less intimidating suburb of Poissy. It marked the fifth installment on my le Corbusier tour of France. But after the joyous wierdness of Cérgy, it was rather underwhelming. For those of you who know the building from architecture books, lectures, magazines etc, let me reassure you that it comes across much better in those media than in reality. To pierce the dream of all those architectural fans who’ve only ever seen carefully staged pictures of the villa floating in a meadow surrounded by trees, let me show you this view (above). Don’t be fooled by the impression that the villa is a white box floating above the countryside: it is, in fact, directly adjacent to and overlooked by a large secondary college.