Friday, 20 March 2009

La Vie En Rose, Lots of War Films and my past

The sun, the walks, the unexpected discoveries have nicely counterbalanced the reality of the lives who require hospital treatment, and the impossible task of doctors, nurses and other staff who are expected to have a magic wand to the ready whatever the situation and its complexity.

On Sunay evening as I set off for Gateshead to watch La Mome: La Vie en Rose at the temporary Tyneside Film Theatre in the former Town Hall building, the sky above the Tyne was spectacularly darkening although when I left three hours later there was no trace of the anticipated cloudburst. There was a cold chill and I appreciated my forethought in bringing a coat in the car although it would have been better if I had then taken it into the Old Town Hall with me. It is an odd quirk that within the past week I have visited two former Town Halls in Sunderland, one in South Shields and one in Gateshead, with the latter being the most difficult to find.

The Tyneside Film Theatre occupies a warren of an old building close to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and for the past 18 months it has been extensively remodelled with an addition floor height and I would be surprised if the work is completed before next summer. This was my first visit to its temporary location and it was well that I allowed plenty of time because before getting access to the car park at the front of the building whose stone work has been under wraps for an even longer period, I found myself doing circuits of the town and going over the main bridge into Newcastle, then having to take the short tunnel into the centre by pass before crossing over to take the reverse route in order to get back to where I had started. This enabled me to see the new pedestrian bridge which connects Northumbria University with its new campus on a site where there was a multiplex and restaurant complex and a large car park. Now there are modern full of glass university buildings towering above the dual carriageway. The bridge was pre constructed and put into place over a few days, is attractive to look at and improves the look of this part of the city, as do the new buildings, one of which suffered from a fire before completion.

Edith Piaf's life ended when I was in my first term at Birmingham University but I remember something of the publicity which surrounded her funeral with Paris acknowledged in numbers after the Catholic Church refused to give her a mass because of the life she had led. I also had heard her sing on the radio during my tesns and acquired a copy No Regrets issued in 1961, There was a time when I would have included this on the Myspace profile but I cannot say I agree with its sentiments anymore. Regrets I have had a few, Frank Sinatra My Way being more appropriate. Although in this biopic she is quoted as immediately adopting My Regrets on first hearing because it expressed what her life was about, the rest of film also makes the point that she was full of great regret.

I believed I knew the essentials of her life from various TV documentaries but I cannot remember if I have seen the Pam Gems show of the 1990's. The grave of Edith Piaf was visited at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery on my first visit to the city although I had driven the car there previously to catch the motor-rail south in the 1970's. She was also one whose profile I searched Myspace and where I selected the Bostonian Ziaf tribute group with snippets of four songs which includes Non je ne regrette and have kept faith with them since although it also time to remedy the absence of an original recording. However while I have always been fascinated by the story of her life apart from the handful of well known numbers such as Milord and No regrets, her repertoire of over 250 songs failed to engage because they are in a language I do not understand although I liked the sound of a voice reflecting the life she is known to have led.

The film was a great disappointment although Marian Cotillard is brilliant transforming her face and body from a teenage singing beggar on the streets and dives of Paris into the self inflicted middle aged wreck fearing death yet embracing it because she knew she could sing no more and hoped she would be reunited and make peace with those she had loved and lost. The Director Olivier Dahan decided against a chronological account switching constantly between the final moments of her life to her childhood and episodes in her rise to fame in order to try and communicate the essence of her being, and which he accomplished to a significant extent: the abandoned starving and sick girl; a life on the streets and among the brothels of Paris; the lack of any moral foundation and self control: the craving for a love with she could only find by pouring out her longing and past experience to adoring audiences when she sang live to the extent that she had to perform get this fix even when it accelerated the process of self destruction.

The film failed because despite its length it missed or skated over key aspects and the hold she had on Paris, France and younger contemporary singers.

Edith, named after Edith Cavell, Giovanna Gassion was born in the immigrant district of Belleville in 1915 to a 20 year old part Italian café singer mother from a Tuscan port who was then only 20, and a contortionist acrobat 15 years older than his wife. The film suggested to me that her mother had left Edith with a grandparent only after the disappearance of her husband and she needed to travel to get work, when in fact they both abandoned their baby child to a relative. It was father who then took the child to his mother who worked as a cook in a brothel in Normandy and the prostitutes helped to bring up the child, although one can assume that it was her mother who taught her to sing.

The film does cover the fact that she was allegedly blind for a time, but not that the period stretched for six years until she was fourteen, but is accurately shows that she was taken on a pilgrimage honouring Saint Therese de Lizieu and which the film suggests convinced Edith that the Saint was personally intervening in her life and which in turn convinced her that her prayers helped the subsequent reputed love of her life to win a world boxing title.

The film blatantly misleads by compressing early events to avoid having to use two child actresses portraying that she is only still a child waif when after World War 1 service her father takes Edith with him on his street work and finds that she has more pulling power with her voice than his own act. In fact she was a very worldly young woman of fourteen when she joined him, breaking with her father shortly after she commenced to have success, and bearing a child when she was sixteen from a relationship with a seventeen year old. The child died two years alter. The film does not mention this at all but does communicate that father, mother and Edith were lifelong alcoholics and which led their respective premature deaths.

Edith was joined on the streets and dives of Paris by her half sister and they enjoyed a wild life of sex, drink and drugs as some teenagers do today until discovery by Louis Leplee who had a club off the Champs Elysee of the kind that in London was frequented by the Kray twins and a leading Conservative politician. Edith combined singing in the club as La Mome Piaf, the waif, little or kid sparrow, with her life as the mistress of a pimp who she is said to have given the greater part of her income to avoid being just one of his other girls. One of her friends killed herself rather than submit to the boyfriend pimp and he then shot Edith when she tried to break up with him because of this. When Leplee was then found murdered it is not surprising that the police thought she was implicated because of her involvement with the criminal mobsters responsible.

For a time she was out of favour and then she had a "romantic" relationship with Raymond Asso which the film portrays as a love hate relationship professionally as he turned her from an untrained and unprofessional singing waif into Edith Piaf international singing sensation getting her to understand and act out her songs and arranging for Marguerite Monnot to create songs which depicted her previous life on the street.

The film effectively conveys that she then became a selfish and self indulgent Prima Donna and for once there is no reference to all the good charitable work which such individuals usually undertake to balance out their wilder excesses. Edith, now known as Edith Piaf developed a circle of well known friends such as Maurice Chevalier, the playwright Jean Cocteau, staring in one of his one act plays, and the poet Jacques Borgeat who wrote the lyrics of many of her songs. It is historical fact that she then discovered Yves Montand who became her lover and part of her stage performances until he became a leading performer in his own right and the relationship ended as quickly as it began. During the war she lived above a brothel frequented by German soldiers and some of her critics have suggested she was too friendly with the occupying power.

It was after the war that she became internationally recognised and commenced her visits to the USA, at first unsuccessfully but then with ongoing success, with two concerts at Carnegie Hall. It is during the transatlantic and European travels that she commenced a relationship with the married boxer Marcel Cerdan who Piaf and her biographers describe as the love of her life. He was killed in a plane crash in 1949 on his way to the USA for a rematch with La Motta whose world middle weight titled Cerdan had taken. I am not saying that she was not passionate about the man who made it known to her that he had no intention of leaving his wife and children. For me the love of a life means someone who cannot be replaced and I have known several women, or of several women, one the fiancée of a first cousin, who never married because of the sudden death of a loved one usually in one of the two world wars.
In the instance of Piaf she married the singer Jacques Pills three years later, divorcing him four years after that and then six years later married the Greek hairdresser, singer actor Theo Sarapo in 1962, aged 26 and twenty years her junior.
There is no doubt that Edith was a passionate woman whose life continued to act out her music. In 1951 she was severely injured in a car accident involving Charles Aznavour, whose career she was also instrumental in launching. However she was also involved in two other near fatal car accidents and throughout her later life was addicted to morphine injections and continuing dependency on excessive alcohol. The film ends with her 1961 save the Olympia concert which launched Non je ne regrette rien, although she continued to work with her final Olympia concert in 1962 and final record L'homme de Berlin in April 1963. She was driven back to Paris by her husband from Grasse where she had a home, allegedly after her death. Alas the structure of the film failed to work for me and failed to communicate the extent to which she became a leading contemporary icon.

I decided to wash and shave in the midst of writing this and listened to a writer who is regarded as the most sold world wide author in the UK of books for adults as opposed to those written for children, some twenty five million, who confessed that the only thing she really liked was writing or talking about writing, and therefore disliked everything else, and only stopped when her family demanded that she given them attention. I know only too well what she meant but like Piaf I enjoy the good things of life too much to be able to just work, although nothing like her excesses. I suspect intentionally and unintentionally all three of us fuelled our myths and legends although in this we are not alone and has become the thing do if you want achieve success in the arts, become a successful politician or public personality.

I am making the time to read the Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend, by Matt Parry, History Lecturer at Sunderland University, Sunderland University Press 12.95; a remarkable work because of its insight into the nature of power, government at national and local level, political parties in and out of government, on the complexity of being a party politician, especially when a Minister, on the sometimes duplicitous role of trade unions and their full time politically ambitious paid leadership, on the undemocratic role of newspaper media, and its individualistic owners as organs of the establishment, influenced only by advertisers, on the blatant misuse of position by hierarchical religious leaders whose actions and statements can be shown as unchristian and unforgiving in contrast to some atheists, on the impact of sectarianism and tribalism, on the nature of protest, and above all or the nature of capitalism and work and on the different perspectives about starvation income if you are a child, or a parent who is without adequate accommodation, food, clothing and opportunity to change your circumstances

I appreciate that this says more about my interpretation of the work than its author's likely intentions although I hope to test this out with him directly when the reading is completed having read only 109 of its 264 pages to-date.
The work sets out to separate fact from fiction and explains how and why the Crusade has become more Myth and Legend, taking away attention from the other hunger marches, including one from the North East who were travelling to London at the same time.
Apart from an interest in the general issues which the work raises, I had a parallel experience of an involvement in a peace march travelling in the opposite direction only two decades later which also attempted to gain support for a cause along the route, relying on the response of local activists to also provide accommodation and food. Similar to the Jarrow march there was a control over participants but support was welcome from anyone or interest who shared its main objective. Unlike the Jarrow Crusade which emphasised its constitutional and democratic objectives the purpose of march to Holy Loch was to engage in non violent civil disobedience direct action. Two years ago, perhaps it was longer, I read a thesis about the role and effectiveness of the non violent civil disobedience Direct Action Committee (which appointed me as at temporary organiser for the Holy Loch march after I pushed the idea thought up with colleagues while doing our time in Stafford nick) and the Committee 100 which I was only asked to join after a number of original members dropped out when they realised they would be going into the front line, and which I then resigned after discovering that people were being encouraged to sign up, by Lord Russell's left hand man, or was he more right handed, who had no intention of participating in a demonstration where the committee had set a minimum number to go ahead, and where Lady Russell on behalf of her husband rejected my protest expressing their confidence in the individual. Interestingly I was not approached by the writer of the thesis. Similarly I read an article written by an expert on naval matters who claimed the authorities were able to forestall the Holy Loch demonstrators because their efforts to get hold of the plans. The facts are on behalf of the Direct Action Committee I made appointments with all the local police chiefs to advise of our intentions with varying responses. That for Clydebank appointed a liaison Inspector who asked how many men were like to be needed to facilitate the march, offering to stop the traffic rather than the usual request to limit the width and separate into blocks; for Inverclyde Greenock and Gourock under political instruction I was invited to meet three chief officers to ensure that the authority provided appropriate support while at Dunoon which covered the civil disobedience action, a meeting with the police was arranged by a local member of the national committee of the Scottish CND, and I agreed to a stenographer so that an appropriate record could be kept and which led to a letter from the Commander of the Flagship Scotland indicating that our intentions were fool hardy as well as illegal and that appropriate consequences would follow. I have it still.

How much of written history is truth and how much myth and legend depends on the perspective and interests of participants, of their written records, those of other contemporary observers and commentators and then of those who collate the available information and who then interpret against wider perspectives, personal interests and intentions.

I was interviewed by a local journalist for a national daily who admitted his brief was to do everything possible to undermine support for the project and the published piece reflected this but not his personal views and our balanced discussion, and which was different from the position of journalist of another national daily who was embedded with the marchers and proclaimed that the demonstration was a great success and would be covered throughout the world, and which it was.

One reason why I have not made as much progress with the excellent work on the Jarrow Crusade as I wanted is that I broke off to watch a programme about British Film making in relation to war. The programme had started when I switched on and over, but I managed to catch the moment when Alexander Korda is said to have persuaded Churchill not to close the cinemas because film could be used to maintain morale, gain support for the war effort and have educational and propaganda impact. He then created The Lion has Wings 1939 in order to demonstrate the different values of the UK and Nazism although aspects of the film will have unintentionally convinced the Germans of that they would have an easy victory.

"In which we serve" is loosely based on the naval life of Lord Mountbatten whose ship HMS Kelly, built at Hebburn South Tyneside, was sunk during the battle of Crete and was director debut for Noel Coward who also starred, and for David Lean, and screen acting debut for Richard Attenborough. Juliet Mills briefly appeared in the film as the fictional son of the character played by her father and Daniel Massey, playing the son of Noel Coward ,then appeared in the film Star in 1968 playing Noel Coward. The film accurately showed British society divided at that time by class and sexual biology but also emphasised the importance of everyone working together in common cause and pushing above their normal weight. It was given an honorary Oscar.

"Went the Day well" warned of the potential enemy within when a group of soldiers take over a village only to be discovered as Germans on an advance party for the invasion. The village Squire is shown to be a German spy and the village telephonist is shown killing a soldier and then being killed in a reality which is more effective than many branded horror films of today. The 49th Parallel covers a group of German submariners attempting to get home seeking the support of German emigrants in Canada but this community rejects their former countrymen because of the different values. The film was designed to encourage USA participation on the side of the British Empire and Russia.

In the "A Matter of Life and Death made immediately after the war science fiction techniques of two decades later are used to explore issues of an afterlife using a court of celestial beings in uniform, civil and military, of American UK relationships and of the comparative powerlessness of the law when confronted by selfless love. The film was the first Royal Command Performance and made at a time when millions were coping with the fact that parents, sons and daughters, loved ones would not be returning to celebrate the peace. The issue of social and nationalistic attitude is also explored in the film the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp wonderfully played by Roger Liversey who also stars in a A matter of life and Death, both films directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and with Anton Walbrook in the former and David Niven in the latter, or vice versa.

Although Colonel Blimp is a Low comic strip character the film script is original and commences when our hero is out smarted in a Home Guard war game in which the other team wins by refusing to play by the rules. Young Blimp wins the VC during the Boer War and then goes to Germany after receiving a request for help from an English teacher concerned about the spread of anti English propaganda, and who then marries a German officer after fighting a duel with Blimp who unintentionally insults the whole German army. In the first world war Blimp again triumphs on the premise that the Allies won because might is right. During the period he meets and marries a nurse who resembles Edith. After the war he searches for the German Officer Theo who initially snubs the overture from his former friend and after release from a POW camp returns to Germany, unrepentant. In the second world war the former German officer works in England, estranged from his children who are part of the Nazi ideological system. Colonel Blimp saves the manr from internment and the film communicates that while Blimp is still locked in his old order attitudes it is the former German officer who understands the nature of modern warfare and this is brought home to who Blimp finds that his young driver who also looks like Edith, which is not surprising as all three are played by the same actress, has given away his exercise plans to her boyfriend who leads the opposing and winning team.

Blimp and by implication the rest of old England wake up to the reality that in order to win the war the same methods as the enemy will have to be used. The role of the Home Guard was subsequently brought back into reality through the comic series Dads Army which is still shown today.

A different kind of reality was achieve with Millions Like US set in an aircraft engineering factory and hostel where called up young women from all walks of life were sent to make their contribution, which included receiving the dreaded Telegram. Post War Films like the Cruel Sea and Morning Departure, the latter where I and my cousins got some of the last seats at the back of a 4000 seat theatre in Croydon after queuing through the first feature, began to bring the reality of fighting to the general public, but we still needed hero's to help justify what had happened and Reach for the Sky, the story of Douglas Bader who returned to flying after losing both his legs and Carve her name with pride which followed the story of one young women flown into enemy territory, and who with two others were executed towards the end of the war after capture and torture .reassured about the willingness of individuals to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of ideals and their countrymen and countrywomen.

The continuing belief in standards and respecting the professionalism of enemy soldiers has been immortalised through another frequently repeated classic Ice Cold in Alex, now also the banner for cold lager manufacturers and where after turning in a captured enemy officer who shared their desert crossing ordeal they insist on sharing a drink with him before he is incarcerated. It was years later before adequate recognition was given to the bravery and intelligence of the enemy with the British Film The one who got away where a German flying officer who nearly gets home with an experimental plane, before being sent to Canada where he again escaped y jumping from a moving train, before getting to the USA where he was again held and escaped via Mexico back to Germany where he fought again until disappearing in a subsequent mission.

While One of our aircraft is missing 1942 showed the courage of the Dutch in helping to get home the shot down crew of an RAF Bomber, the TV series Secret Army is the master class for the role of the underground networks to return aircrew and escaped POW's to the UK to fight again just as Tenko is the benchmark for the role of women in Japanese POW camps. The classic film in relation to man under Japanese captivity is the Bridge of the River Kwai which also emphasised the dangers of sticking to values without taking account of all the implications and contemporary context. A Town Like Alice combined the heroism of British Women and that of an Australian POW with its top 100 happy endings of all time

As the 20th century progressed and new generations without any personal experience of homeland wartime came to the fore, the good and bad guy war film was questioned as well as a military hierarchy which was able to get away with anything in the name of discipline and keeping good order. The Hill is a good example of the latter, while The Bridge too far shows what happens when the planners and intelligence get it wrong. Within the space of four decades we had moved from the futility of over the top trench war with Oh What a Lovely War to the post nuclear holocaust with The War Game which the BBC commissioned and refused to show for several decades, Dr Strangelove in which one member of the Goon show, Peter Sellers played several parts onto the Bed Sitting Room which is pure Goonland Spike Milligan, and to Zulu and the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which brave young men were required to surrender their lives against overwhelming odds as historical precursors to the fields of Flanders.

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