I jumped off the cheap air flight at the Charles De Gaulle Airport and wormed my way onto an RER train which let go of me back at the St. Michel stop in Paris. I hefted my geared, mercifully minus the few kilos that I had shed back in Aberdeen, over to Hotel St. Andre des Arts, where Fred was waiting to say ‘Bon soir’ once again. It was getting on in the evening and I needed resr as I felt the airborne bug in the plane begin to work on me subtly.
The next day I awoke and considered my options. Fortunately Paulette Caron had contacted me again the evening before. We were going to watch a performance later that evening. Meanwhile I had to get some cash. I had found the one exchange establishment that I could trust over by the Louvre. I made my way there to exchange my pounds and dollars. It was mostly a restful day. I did a little small gift shopping to make sure that my back still had something to complain about. But mostly I kept a low profile and hoped that it, whatever the next installment of Euro-malady might be, would be held at bay. But little sniffles were coming.
That evening, after passing African butcher shops and Middle Eastern fruit stands, I met Paulette and her boyfriend at the Lavoir Moderne Parisien, a performance space up in the 18e Arrondissement. The show for the evening was being performed by a theatrical collective called Scène Infernale and it was based on the works of Bruno Schultz. The title of the piece was ‘La République des rêves’ (or The Republic of Dreams). We waited in a foyer that featured various objects and debris related to the theme of the evening: a little automatic race horse game, many pieces of paper, a few chairs and a shabby bed. We Eventually were seated in seats more appropriate for five year olds on two sides of a performing zone in what felt like it once been an old garage.
The show began: Several performers were massaging the head and body of the full sized mannequin like puppet. It was clear that they were like a Greek chorus of the Fates opening his sleeping mind to dream. Now from what I could gather he dreams about his bad relationship with his rather compulsive father. And in the end the mannequin, our dreamer, is left decapitated on the ground. Things have not gone smoothly in the search for redemption. Now in fact I’m sure I missed a lot since the play was actually quite word heavy. Paulette filled me a little afterwards. Some of the imagery was quite fascinating. Much of it was done in the Object Theatre style, which tends to be an experimental theatre piece with puppets and other symbolic objects, in this case some of those things included bottles, cut out images of birds placed into the bottles with water, and most intriguingly from my perspective was the use of fully working light bulbs and other illuminating devices as objects themselves.
Now I’ve come to see a fairly clear difference between the theatrical use of puppets and the puppet theatre’s use of actors and objects. I felt that François Lazaro’s piece was more of an intellectual puppet show. While the Scène Infernale’s was more on the side of object theatre, the actual play was not as much about the puppet as it was about the father, an actor. Nevertheless it was a fascinating experience and a fitting final piece of puppet related theatre to observe in Europe this time round. I bid farewell to Paulette and company knowing we would be meeting the next morning to discuss the possibility of her coming to Alaska to work on a bit of puppetry while she was visiting her American friends and relatives in March.
On Wednesday December 5th, my last full day in Paris, in France, in Europe, after spending a couple of hours in lively discussion with Paulette, I felt again the need to rest. Since the thing that had been trailing me with more ingredients for a head cold was getting closer to a full manifestation. And yet it was my last day, I couldn’t simply stay in the hotel. I decided to go out into the damp early evening, perhaps around four, to buy the final items on my list of gifts from Europe for various folks back home. That at least was my plan.
But there was still one more person I hadn’t spoken to in Paris yet. And that was Aurélia Ivan, the gifted student I had met back in 2005 at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. I had played a game of tag with her starting in Lyon. Last time I was in Paris she was crazily busy and I missed the opportunity to talk with her. I had heard from her in Scotland, but was pretty much expecting similar results with my two day window of time. But suddenly that afternoon she sent me a message to meet her at the Centre Pompidou. And so I hopped on the Metro and arrived in good time at the center’s massive lobby. And I waited for Aurélia. And I waited. And then I waited some more. She’d said around five. It was getting closer to five-thirty. I wandered around looking for her, in case she had hidden herself in the bookstore or up in the restaurant. Then I noticed a lower level. I thought I saw her looking up at a television screen down there. No such luck. Eventually she sent a text message saying ‘J’arrive.’ And so I knew she was getting close.
She finally arrived in a shiny yellow raincoat, which was covering what looked like predominately black clothes, quite the Symbolist color scheme. (She asked me not to take a photo and seemed a bit perplexed that she might be photographed wearing yellow. Plus you never know who might see such a photo on this damned internet.) At first we greeted each other in a friendly manner. There was a little bit of reservation on both of our parts. I knew she was quite (insanely) busy. And she was a bit uncertain as to what my whole project really was. (The operative word here was ‘really’.) Meanwhile she took a cellphone call that seemed to last an eternity. Finally she was making funny gestures as if to say ‘Finish already’. When the interminable finally terminated we were at last free to talk and she made it a point to blow off the rest of the calls trying to find her.
Now we didn’t actually go anywhere. We stayed in the train station of a lobby at the Centre Pompidou and began to talk. At first it mostly just me trying to explain the project a little… Oh yeah I should mention this Aurelia’s English seems to be on the same level as my French, which is to say not exactly fluent. And so we began speaking in what would eventually be French 85% to English about 13% with the rest being taken up by gesticulations. Now at certain point I was beginning to feel that I was taking up her time and that it was difficult to actually communicate. And so I started to give her excuses to leave if she needed to. And then she suddenly asked me a question about the project. And the question was simply, and I paraphrase, ‘Why are you going through all of this? What is the point of your film?’
Well that question opened the door to another hour of discussion, argumentation, and finally laughter and real friendship. I won’t even begin to summarize the whole discussion. Talking with Aurélia is a bit like… Have you ever seen images of Nadia Comaneci, the famous Romanian gymnast, concentrating on the balance beam in the 1976 Montreal Olympics? It’s an unshakeable focus. Well Aurélia, may live in Paris, and be losing her original language to some degree, but like her fellow Romanian she is unshakeable. At one point we were having an intense philosophical disagreement. And I said ‘Usually, in English, (The key point here!) I can win my arguments.’ She looked at me, simply smiled and said (I can’t do justice to her French phrase.) ‘Well admit it you’ve lost now.’ I laughed. She repeated it as if to say, don’t even try I have a Royal Flush. And we both laughed.
Well we strolled through the wet Parisian streets over to the Châtelet Metro stop. We would meet again in 2013 when her Android play was ready and I could interview her for the film. She grabbed a bus to take her home to Clichy and I walked over to the Metro. I stopped for a moment and looked at the French streets, the Christmas lights, the people. It seemed like a perfect moment.
I jumped out at Odeon and happily waited in line at my favorite crêperie. I talked with Fred at the hotel desk again. And spent my final night in Paris reflecting on the people and events of this journey.
Which I shall unravel next time in the last chapter of this first part of the Gravity From Above Journal.
For more information of Aurelia Ivan’s new show called Homo Urbanicus:
Charleville-Mézières is in France on the Belgian border. My next stop was Brussels to find the Toone Marionnette Theatre, perhaps the oldest continuing puppetry organization in Europe. Yet I was on a train, then bus, then train again (don’t ask) on my way back to Paris with my back stressing load of belongings for another meeting. One of the people I had most wanted to connect with was madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch, the granddaughter of the first animated puppet (in fact dead bugs!) filmmaker Ladislas Starewitch, a Russian of Polish extraction, whose parents were from Lithuania. (Variously spelled Ladislaw Starevitch or Starewich, or Władysław Starewicz his birth name in Polish and even Владислав Старевич depending on the country. Since we are in France we’ll stay with the French orthography.) After the Russian Revolution Starewitch moved to Paris, less from political convictions than from the simple fact that Bolsheviks did not have the temperament to appreciate or support his sort of puppet films. Starewitch found success within a few years of his arrival in Paris and his home became a magnet for White Russian emigrés. Most of his great films were made in France: La Voix du Rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) and especially the miraculous Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) from 1933.
Starewitch is a big influence on the Brothers Quay. When I mentioned him to Švankmajer, he immediately corrected my translator who was fumbling with the name a bit. Terry Gilliam also owes him a real debt and considers The Mascot as one of the ten greatest animated films made. Tim Burton’s animated work screams Starewitch. And Fetiche Mascotte seems like a direct ancestor of Toy Story. And if Wes Anderson did not make a careful study of Starewitch before making the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d be really surprised. Starewitch, like George Méliès, is one of those seminal figures, an original, an inventor, whose work is still literally marvelous!
I made my way to a small café near the Bois de Vincennes to meet Madame Martin-Starewitch. I had tried several times to get in touch with her while in Paris, but alas schedules would not permit. And when she asked top meet me here two days after I had already left Paris I couldn’t turn her down. Fortunately the place was not overly crowded. I had just taken over a small booth with my three traveling packs and ordered a meal when she arrived, a bit early but that was fine with me. I still had to get to Brussels that evening.
We immediately began to talk. Her English was good enough to understand me thoroughly when I explained the nature of the project. The Brothers Quay had wondered if she remembered meeting them back in the 80’s at a conference in Annecy. She did indeed, and fondly. She was glad to know that their work owed such a debt to her grandfather. One of the first things she had told me was that they had recently found a longer version of Fetiche Mascotte that superseded all of the other versions. To puppet folk and animation fans this was good news indeed!
Also she told me that in addition to the four DVDs of Starewicz work currently available in France (with English subtitles, etc) there would be another four due to hit in the near future including one with the longest version of The Mascot. While she was the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy Starewitch is still hardly a household name. The one American DVD issued a while ago and now out of print was essentially a bootleg made without any funds ever returning to the estate. We both agreed that what was needed was a film like Hugo that made prominent use of Starewitch the way Scorsese had used Méliès. And she had stories of her grandfather that were certainly film worthy in themselves. All in all it was an excellent meeting with Madame Martin-Starewitch and she too was game for an interview and to use her grandfather’s work in Gravity From Above.
Now it was time to move on to get to Brussels. After passing through the Metro again, while sitting next to a hip young girl in a real fur coat (something you’d never see in America), listening to an entire string ensemble playing Baroque music at the busy Châtelet stop and paying an extra hundred dollars to get a train to Brussels, thanks again to the disconnect between the rail passes and life on the ground, I arrived, my back demanding rest in a rather industrial hotel near the old center of Brussels at around 21h00. Unfortunately my current information on the Toone had said that they had performed that day but were not to play again for a few more days. Had I come straight from Charleville without the extra stop I would have made it! But that Parisian meeting was very important.
I then strolled Bruxelles in the dark, passing the central cathedral bathed in purple light, and locating Le Théâtre Royal de Toone all the while slowly savoring a couple of Belgian chocolates. The next day, after sleeping in to give my aching muscles a rest, I wandered through the old town under a light rain. I stopped into to see if I could glean anything from restaurant that was also a part of the Toone theatre and it turned out that they were indeed playing that night! So much for relying on websites as some sort of final word…
I drifted around the town, found some old record stores, though sadly left the wares in their bins by command of my spine. That evening I entered the Toone restaurant again to wait for the theatre upstairs to open. The show for the evening was Romeo and Juliet á la Toone. Eventually the Royal Toone VIII himself, Nicolas Géal arrived in buoyant spirits to open the door to the stairs for us. Géal is the son of Toone José Géal, an important puppeteer in his own right who bequeathed the theatre to Nicolas back in 2003 in a coronation ceremony by the town Burgomaster. (Toone is pronounced ‘tone’ and a Belgian nickname for the original Toone I, Antoine Genty, who started the theatre a few years back in 1830.)
An eager throng ascended, passing old Toone posters, including the Passion play of the legendary modern playwright and puppet enthusiast Michel de Ghelderode. In the theatre itself we sat beneath over a hundred figures, each about one third human scale, that were hanging from the rafters high above us: such figures as Nazis with skulls for heads, Napoleon, knights in armor, many princesses and scores of variations on the classic Toone hero Woltje, a jaunty figure in checkered clothes and cap.
Eventually maximum density for the evening had been achieved and Toone VIII emerged to greet us to the evenings production of Romeo and Juliet. He then vanished behind a side curtain and the farce began in an outrageous nasal quacking French/Dutch dialect. Woltje plays Romeo. Juliet has the face of a doll. Mercutio is played by another classic Toone figure with a nose long enough to be sold by a hotdog vendor. In the middle of one scene, Romeo is distracted by a cellphone call. Obviously it’s not exactly word for word Shakespeare. But it certainly is amusing.
During the intermission Nicolas Géal invites us all down to the ‘museum’, which does have quite a few battered antique characters on the wall, but really this is a chance to down a bit of another Belgian specialty, beer, which I must confess is an excellent way to spend the halftime. After about twenty minutes we then watched the rest of the show, which being a comedy does not exactly have the same ending as the Shakespearean tragedy. Death comes for Romeo and Juliet, but seconds before he can take the dead puppets is unceremoniously booted off stage my the monk.
After the show I spent a while talking with Géal about Toone history. I reminded him of a strange story of one of the Toone marionettists who was found dead hanging among his puppets. To confirm the fact, he showed me a book that his mother wrote back in the 70’s about the history of the Toone theatre, complete with oodles of illustrations. It’s a book I determined to track down some day. He also explained something about the weird Brussels accent that used to be Dutch with some French but over the years had become French with some Dutch. Géal was delighted to have Toone performances captured when I returned for part two of this journey next year. And I was pleased to have another solid contact for the future.
And I can also gladly say when in Belgium do not miss Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Tell Toone VIII that you heard about it from me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You’re in Brussels, a place where language is so polyglot that your original tongue doesn’t matter to anyone. (Still, at least try to learn a few French greetings.)
Next we cross La Manche to enter Angleterre.
December 22, 2012
For more information on Starewitch go here:
And to discover Le Théâtre Royal de Toone try this: