Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Revisiting the French film that got me hooked

April 16, 2008

I wasn’t always a sucker for French movies. And I don’t unconditionally love them all—there are some amazingly bad ones out there, after all. But whether roaming the video store or checking the movie listings, I find myself inordinately ready to give French films a chance. I can trace it all back to wandering into an art theater in St. Louis one evening and seeing the quietly charming The Two of Us.

Set in German-occupied France, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Paris sent by his parents to live in the country with an elderly Catholic couple until the liberation. The old man is “staunchly anti-Semitic,” as one reviewer put it, so the boy must hide his identity.

The intense bond that forms between the two of them is the story. And the brilliant performances of the two leads—Michel Simon as Grampa and nine-year-old, first-time actor Alain Cohen as Claude—make the story come alive.

As does acclaimed director Claude Berri’s deft touch in his feature film debut. He avoids descending into cliché cuteness, showing the characters warts and all. Before being whisked off to the country, young Claude gets caught smoking, fighting and shoplifting, thus calling attention to his family and forcing them to move. And when the old man tries to pass along his anti-Semitic views to Claude, he pretends to go along with his views, but then teases him. At one point, Grampa is trying to teach Claude how to spot a Jew; he tells him they always have big noses and wear their hats to the dinner table. The boy points out Simon’s beret and his impressively bulbous nose, then runs through the house, yelling in mock alarm, “Grampa’s a Jew!”

Equally charming is Berri’s affectionate but unsentimental view of country life in France in the 1940s. The scenes with the schoolchildren at the one-room country school especially capture the rough edges of rural life, and the outdoor Sunday dinner with Grampa’s grown son and his wife, its delights.

For all these reasons, The Two of Us is a film to see. When it was rereleased in 2005, actor Alain Cohen said in an interview in the New York Times that the theme of the film was “the ambivalent difference between real evil and evil lightly performed. It’s impossible to hate the character played by Michel Simon. Yet he does say hateful things. You might think that’s Claude Berri’s way of telling us that anti-Semitism isn’t really all that bad. But I think it suggests just the opposite—that even under the appearance of good, evil can exist, that this nice grandfather, who adores his little rabbits, could be on the dark side of history.”

Perhaps so. But I think the theme could as easily be the folly of prejudice. We are taught certain prejudicial views—by our families and friends, by society, the media, church, government… But when we actually have a chance to explore them, we find they are false.

If you like French films, see The Two of Us. And if you think you don’t like them, see it anyway. It’s a misconception you’ll be happy to let go of.


You are here. And here. And here.

January 9, 2008


More than 30 museums and institutions in Chicago have been participating in a Festival of Maps this fall and winter. We’ve only scratched the surface, but have seen some amazing treasures. At the Newberry Library’s Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West exhibit, a map drawn by George Washington during the French and Indian War. William Clark’s map of “part of the continent of North America,” drawn during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. At the Field Museum of Natural History’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit, Charles Lindbergh’s flight map for his historic New York/Paris flight in 1927. Two maps drawn by Leonardo da Vinci and loaned to the Field by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And a tattered roadmap of the U.S. that lovingly traced a family’s impressively extensive road trips in the pre-superhighways 1930s, covering much of the country, from Florida to Washington state and stretching even into Canada.


Many of the maps on display throughout the city are beautiful works of art in their own right, or significant pieces of history. Just as often, they represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of our planet, and the civilizations and cultures that have inhabited it. A painstaking map of the ocean floor made in the 1950s from sonar readings proved for astonished scientists that the earth’s crust was made up of separate moveable plates. Also at the Field, a map on a video screen depicted the American Civil War in four minutes, with each second representing a week. The map showed the gains and losses of territory, with many areas changing hands more than once as battles raged. All the while, a counter in one corner served as a grim reminder of the human cost, more than 1.3 million soldiers dead at the war’s end.

But it’s not all history. A number of interactive exhibits show how GPS and other technologies are remapping the art and science of mapmaking. And why, even with all this technology, there is still a need for human eyes at ground level.

Some exhibits have already closed, and some will end soon. Others will continue into the spring. For more information, check out the appropriately map-based Festival of Maps website.

Really bad words in the news

October 31, 2007


I curse. Not here so much, but practically everywhere else, including in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel bad about how much and how eloquently I curse, but mostly I think of it as using all the words available to me in our vocabulary, and that makes me feel pretty smart.

So I was delighted to hear that a certain amount of cursing can be good for you, unless you live in Pennsylvania.

First, there was this report in the CBC News on a British study that found that workplace profanity boosts office morale. The study, “Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: when anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable” [leave it to academics to suck the life out of even cool topics], found that swearing at work [but not in front of customers] reflected solidarity, enhanced group cohesiveness and released stress. My friend Ronnie takes an interesting look at this study over at her blog Work Coach.

But don’t try this at work—or at home, for that matter—if you live in Pennsylvania.

In West Scranton, Pennsylvania, a woman was charged with disorderly conduct for cursing at her overflowing toilet in her own home. Turns out her neighbor is an easily offended police officer. He was off duty at the time of the incident, but took it upon himself to summon his on-duty brethren. And here I thought the only service off-duty police officers performed was to thwart the occasional liquor store hold-up. Even more incredibly, it turns out that the use of obscene language or gestures is an offense under the state of Pennsylvania’s criminal code. How do people in Pennsylvania express themselves or make it through the workday?

And finally, there’s this interesting look at why we curse and why bad words have so much power in our culture. It appeared on The New Republic magazine’s website and was sent to me by my friend Carolyn, who always finds the most fascinating stuff online. The article looks at the issue of cursing from many perspectives—how we store emotional responses in our brains, how the historical root of swearing is actually religion, the hierarchy of bad words, even why grammatical errors would have made the FCC’s proposed [but failed] Clean Airwaves Act unenforceable… Author Steven Pinker is nothing if not thorough. He’s also not shy about using really bad words in his exhaustive, entertaining article: He starts it with the F-bomb, in fact, and takes off from there. So be forewarned. Myself, I was just impressed.