Sunday, May 19, 2019

Cannes Day Five

The Master Class has become so popular that there are four of them this year up from the usual one or two.  This year’s participants are Nicolas Winding Refn, Alain Delon, Zheng Ziyi and Sylvester Stallone.  The first was this afternoon with Refn interviewed by Philippe Rouyer, television and “Postif” film critic.  

Refn is at Cannes with several episodes of his 10-part tv series “Too Old to Die Young—North of Hollywood, West of Hell.”  These classes usually include clips from the subject’s work that they comment on, but there were none in this interview as Refn said he doesn’t like to talk about what he’s done and only agreed to the Class if he didn’t have to go there. So there was no dose of  his fast-paced highly stylized cinema—including “Drive” for which he won Best Director at Cannes in 2010. This interview was also unique with Rouyer asking his questions in French and Refn answering in English.  He often replied to the long-winded questions with a mere “oui,” but then would usually gracefully give a lengthy response.

Even though Refn came from a cinema family, his father a director and his mother a cinematographer, he didn’t initially want to become a film-maker.  His family moved to New York from Copenhagen when he was nine.  His ambition was to become famous, though he didn’t know how he would do it.  But he was most certainly steeped in cinema.  His first cinema memory was seeing “Nashville” when he was five.  But it was seeing “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when he was fourteen that he saw the possibility in filmmaking.  It all boils down to see and violence, he said.

He spends a lot of time watching YouTube seeking fresh ideas.  An older woman in the audience during the Q&A said understood he didn’t read books and didn’t that make him shallow. He told her that most of the largely young audience in attendance would tell her to “Fuck off.”  Otherwise all the questions, all but a couple in English, though often accented, were laudatory.  He even invited a woman up on stage who had a small poser for him.  He was personable and self-deprecating, and often mentioned his wife and children.  He said he didn’t discover he was partially color blind until he was 24 and accompanied his wife when she was buying shoes and couldn’t believe she wanted to try on two shoes that seemed identical.  He’s also severely dyslexic and has a difficult time writing.  He said the best advice he received about film-making came from Elia Kazan when he had a coffee with him in the ‘90s.  He advised him to just be himself, the same advise he now passes on to young filmmakers.

For the first time this year I wasn’t granted an Invitation for one of the day’s two Competition films—Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory.”  Ralph suffered the same fate so we saw it at the end of the day at the Olympia.  We feared a long line as it had already received the best rating from the Screen panel, as his films usually do.  A day-long drizzle kept the line down, so we got in.  The theater didn’t even full, maybe because others knew that there would be no English subtitles, just French, which was news to us.  We stuck with it anyway, picking up the gist of the story of a drug-addicted older director, played by Antonia Banderas, reconnecting with people he’d worked with from his past intercut with Penelope Cruz playing his mother when he was a child.  We’ll have to see the English-subtitled version at the end of the festival to appreciate its full impact.

Even though the day’s other Competition film, “Little Joe” was from Austria, the dialogue was English.  This very subdued tale of a large plant breeding operation that has developed a flower with pollen that makes people happy, but possibly to their detriment, needed a huge injection of Michael Hanake to make it as disturbing as it was meant to be.

There was just a minimal line for Bruno Dumont’s “Joan of Arc” at the Debussy, his second film on France’s great heroine.  The young girl playing Joan didn’t have to learn much dialogue as the film is mostly about others trying to decide how seriously they should take the voices that are directing her.  The film alternates from the same rural sandy terrain of Dumont’s previous Joan picture and the grand cathedral of Rouen where the clergy debate Joan.  She is certainly one of the most extraordinary persons in history.

After being turned away from an Algerian Un Certain Regard film and a French Director’s Fortnight at the two o’clock slot, the only film available in the Palais complex of theaters and screening rooms was a dreadful attempt at a movie by a 50-year Wall Street analyst—“Rounded Corners.”  Two of the eight people in the audience walked out within a minute instantly recognizing it as worthless when a group of high-school girls chatter away merely reciting their dialogue betraying the ineptitude of the director who was on hand.  It was the story of the 13-year old daughter of a Wall Street analyst, painfully played by the director, and her relationship with her young black summer baby-sitter.  The two couldn’t be more different.  The film could have been heartwarming as the two come to know each other, but the man making this movie was incapable of that.  It had to be agony for any of his friends he subjected this to not to give their honest opinion of how worthless his movie was.

“Shiny Shrimps” had the potential to be the wackiest movie in the Market—a French film about an Olympic swimmer who calls a TV interviewer a “faggott” after he asks him too many unwelcome questions and is ordered to coach a gay water polo team if he wishes to continue swimming for the national team.  He is a macho-jock through and through who approaches the assignment with extreme distaste.  The water polo players are stereotypically prancing, effeminate gays who aren’t very good water polo players.  They are trying to qualify for the Gay Olympic Games.  The swimmer realizes if they don’t qualify his assignment is over, so he makes no effort to improve them until he discovers one is battling cancer unknowns to all and it is his final dream to make it to the Games, inspiring the coach to suddenly care. If any of the characters had been more than superficial, this could have been a rollicking good time.  The script needed considerable help to elevate it.  The film does hold the distinction of having the most prolonged Eiffel Tower scene of the festival as it remains in the background for a film minute as the team leaves Paris by tour bus to Croatia for the Games.

The day’s winner was “Port Authority” the third film in Un Certain Regard that was a first film by a young American director, this time a woman, Danielle Lessovitz.  A disheveled, penniless young man arrives at the bus station in New York City hoping to meet his sister.  When she doesn’t appear he seeks refuge on the subway for the night.  He falls asleep and is assaulted.  He’s rescued by a young guy who knows the streets and takes him to his homeless shelter.  Thus begins a tale of gritty realism of woe and survival in the big city that turns into a transgender movie, that maybe or maybe not ends with hope.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Cannes Day Four

Just as Adam Driver parroted “this isn’t going to end well”  throughout Jim Jarmusch’s Opening Night film “The Dead Don’t Die,” that could be a refrain from the very start of Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You.” From the opening scene it is clearly evident there is nothing but heartache and tragedy ahead for the struggling working-class family that is the subject of 83-year old Loach’s follow-up to his 2016 Palm d’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake.”  It is just a matter of how bad is it going to be for them.  I wasn’t entirely sure if I this was how I wanted to start my day at 8:30 in the morning feeling tension and despair for an hour and forty-two minutes sitting up in the nose-bleed section of the Palais operating on less than six hours of sleep, but so it was.

The film opens as a 40-year old guy applies for a job as an independent-contractor delivery-driver of packages.  He has to first decide if he wants to pay a daily rental feel for a van from the company he’s going to work for or buy his own.  He and his wife are heavily in debt but he convinces her to sell their car so he can afford to put a down payment on a van, even though it makes her have to resort to the bus for her job as a caregiver for people in their homes.

Among their woes is a rebellious teen-aged son who chronically skips school to spray paint graffiti.  He sells his expensive goretex jacket that his parents splurged on for him to buy spray paint.  His goodhearted eleven-year old sister is the anchor of the family, though she makes a gesture trying to save them that has grave consequences.

Any delivery driver, as I can attest from my two decades as a bicycle messenger, is going to face plenty of adversity dealing with traffic and the police and bad addresses and belligerent clients and breakdowns of one’s vehicle. It doesn’t take much to have a bad day.  Loach doesn’t pile it on too heavily, but the adversity that climaxes the film goes beyond most driver’s worst nightmare. Both wife and husband are squeezed to the limit by their corporate minders, the thrust of Loach’s agenda.  The film rings all too true from start to finish.  There are no phony contrivances as questionable plot twists as in “I, Daniel Blake.”

“Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic, in the Palais immediately afterwards promised to be the perfect anecdote to the Loach’s glum primer on today’s workplace.  There was plenty of lively music to revive my spirits, but all too much of the movie dwells upon John’s lack of self-esteem, battling a host of demons—an unloving father, alcohol, a manager who started out as a lover and then turned on him, loneliness and all the usual accessories of fame.  There are enough strong and inventive musical numbers liberally interspersed to more than carry the movie.  I was just hoping it could have had fewer lapses into the “woe is me,” not only to make it a more sustained upbeat experience, but for John’s sake as well.  But he is one of the producers of the movie and wanted that side of his story told.  The movie is framed around him attending AA at the height of his career.  It ends with a few blurbs stating he has been sober for 28 years and that he found a mate that he has been with for 25 years and that they have a couple of children.

It was another quick exit from the Palais and then back in through the same gauntlet of guards checking credentials multiple times and passing through a metal detector and having my bag inspected.  I at least had earlier confirmed that I can bring in my small water bottle, so don’t have to leave it on my bike.

“Atlantics” returned me to Dakar, that I had flown in and out of a year ago for my ride through West Africa. This film has been receiving much attention as the first film ever in Competition by a black woman, Mati Diop, who had acted in a Claire Denis film.  It had received the first four-star reviews from the Screen panel of critics of films in Competition, though premier French critic Michel Ciment had granted it but a single star.  He’s going to become known as “one-star Michel” as he has given out more one-star reviews so far this year than all the other Screen critics combined.  His years of experience and discerning eye do not grant the moody style and mystical bent of this tale of a woman who is being forced into marriage with someone she doesn’t love the favor that others have.  The woman is particularly distraught as the man she loves has left without telling her on a boat for Europe in hopes of a better life.  Her camera shows frequent shots of the rough open sea, but never the crowded unsafe boat he has left on.  There are reports that his boat has sunk not long after it departed with no survivors.  As with yesterday’s animated feature on Kabul this was a worthy effort, but nothing exceptional.

I don’t seek out Russian films,  but upon Ralph’s recommendation I checked out “Beanpole” a gritty post-WWII taking place in Leningrad.  It is another women-centered film focusing on two nurses seeking male companionship in a world that has been greatly depleted of men.  Food is also in short supply so they are willing to resort to whatever measures necessary to supplement their meager diets.  Their predicament is more desperate than that depicted by Loach, but it wasn’t as gut-wrenching since one could disassociate from the reality of it and appreciate the recreation of this world.

Thierry Fremaux, who is a fan of The Tour de France,  invoked Eddie Merckx when he introduced “The Climb” and then asked, “How many of you have heard of Eddie Merckx.”  There was just a smattering of applause.  “The Climb,” the first film by Michael Angelo Covino, who also stars in this American dark comedy, opens with two guys bicycling up a climb in France.  The stronger of the two admits he’d had a long affair with the woman the other guy is about to marry.  He wants to pummel him, but can’t catch up to him.  This is a nice prolonged scene of cycling that culminates with a fight with a guy driving a Deux Chevaux who cuts them off, sending one to the hospital.

The film is told in chapters over a dozen or so years as the two fall in and out of their friendship.  The second chapter is at a cemetery where the union gravediggers get in a fight with the stronger cyclist when he wants to throw a shuffle full of dirt on the grave of his wife.  There is no more cycling until the end when the stronger cyclist ends up running a small bike shop and then goes cycling with his friend accompanied by his son on a bike with training wheels.  The only faux pas was the word “peddling rather than “pedaling” in the subtitles.  This was enjoyable enough that I let it be my final movie of the day passing on the choice of a Japanese gangster film and another about a dancer with no English subtitles even though the French 24 reviewer Lisa Nesselson’s review said that it was engaging from the very start.

This was a rare day without a Market screening, only invited films, all with some degree of merit.

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race--H. G. Wells

Cannes Day Three

So far my on-line requests for Invitations have been granted for the first eight films playing In Competition, three of which have already played.  I’ve never been so fortunate.  Maybe seniority means something.  If this continues for the remaining thirteen films, I won’t have to play catch-up on the final three days of the festival when Competition films are given another screening.  Instead I’ll be able to give my favorites a second viewing, which I’m always happy to do.

My day’s first two films were both from the Competition field and playing in the Palais.  The day got off to a bad start when the guy checking bags found my pâté sandwiches in the flap of my pack that no one had checked before.  There went my lunch.  Fortunately I’d brought along a few extra madeleines, so didn’t have to take time to find food and made it through the day okay.

“Bacurau” opened with a truck driving through spectacular rural Brazilian scenery.  The cinematography immediately stamped this as a Competition-worthy film as did the initial immersion into a funeral going on in a small, isolated village.  This looked like another worthwhile dose of cinema-veritè.  But then the film derails, degenerating into mere Market fare when it introduces a cast of western wannabe mercenaries who intend to shoot up the town.  They are all silly caricatures whose motives make no sense other than to be a Brazilian fantasy of how the country feels dominated by the Land of Trump.  The audience cheered when the Brazilians repel the assault and start killing off the whites.

There was no fantasy in “Les Miserables,” just hard-hitting reality in this gripping portrayal of a housing-project neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris dominated by gangs.  It is seen through the eyes of a cop from Cherbourg on his first day patrolling the neighborhood with two ten-year very-hardened veterans of the beat.  It turns into a veritable nightmare that the rookie calls the worst day of his life.  It is the first film by Ladj Ly, who grew up in the neighborhood.  

This becomes the first film that I will want to see again of those I’ve seen so far.  He managed to insert a view of the Eiffel Tower in the opening montage of scenes of fans gathering in Paris to watch the World Cup the championship game last summer that France won.  It’s too early for any films this year to include scenes of the Yellow Vests.  Next year they will no doubt be a dominant theme.  

Thierry Fremaux was on stage in the Debussy to introduce the cast of the French animated feature “The Swallows of Kabul,” and as he likes to do after the director has said a few words, hopped down the short staircase from the stage ahead of the cast so he could lend a hand to all the women as they descended, and any of the men who didn’t reject his outreached hand. He is always a bundle of energy.

The film takes place in 1998 when the Taliban ruled Kabul.  Women had few rights.  There is an early stoning of one, and then another awaits public execution.  A prison guard who knows she isn’t guilty of the crime she is accused of, killing her husband, tries to help her escape.  The animation is somewhat sketchy, barely two-dimensional. The film manages to hold one’s attention but without fully engaging it.

“Lost and Found” was my lone French film in the Market today. A 35-year old man decides to give up his acting career and become a museum guard.  This comedy portrays all the guards as some neurotics of some sort or another.  Chief among this is a woman who tries to run him off, but then enlists him in a plot to steal uncategorized items from the museum’s storage and sell them.  The script only gives a faint echo of what it is to work as a museum guard, written by someone who only imagines what the job must be like making this the least satisfying of the French films I’ve seen so far.

I finally ended my documentary drought with “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” by Peter Medak, who directed Sellers in the 1973 pirate movie “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.”  The movie was beset with one disastrous problem after another, beginning with the Greek captain who delivered the ship to the shoot location in the Mediterranean crashing the boat.  Sellers was wildly popular coming off the first two Pink Panther movies and “The Shining.”  Medak too was at the top of the game having just directed “The Ruling Class,” for which he received an Oscar nomination.  

Sellers had just broken up with Liza Minnelli and wanted out of the production, faking a heart attack at the start of the shoot.  He was prevailed on to continue but sabotaged Medak from start to finish, resulting in the film getting a minimal release and savage reviews.  It undermined Medak’s future as a director.  Among those Medak interviews for the film are others who have directed Sellers saying how impossible he was, but all agreeing upon his genius.  Late in the movie Medak speaks to the camera with a Telluride Film Festival poster in the background.  As a commentary on film lore, this could well end up at Telluride in the Backlot, where films on cinema are screened.

When I fell two people short from getting into the Russian film “Beanpole” at the Debussy, which Ralph liked, I dashed to the Soixante for another documentary, “5B” about a special AIDS section set up hospital in a San Francisco hospital in 1983 when the disease first broke out and there was no understanding of how contagious it was.  This was a special screening introduced by Fremaux.  There is no stage in this large warehouse of a theater for Fremaux to help guests off of.  

The film is intermixed with footage from the time with interviews of many of the heroic nurses and doctors who were willing to work in the unit unsure of how safe it was.  It wasn’t until 1996 that a drug was discovered that could stem the disease.  Until then the disease was a virtual death sentence.  5B was a care unit, not a cure unit.  Many of those working in the unit bravely made physical contact with the patients, holding their hands and giving them massages, when many staffers were afraid to come near them without being encased in a space suit.  This was a quite moving testament to those worked in 5B.  It wasn’t until 2003 that the special section was no longer needed and AIDS patients were intermixed with all others.  

Ralph and I treated ourselves to a Cannes Classic to end the day—a freshly restored “Moulin Rouge” from 1952 by John Huston.  The restorers introduced it along with a woman who worked on the film who said she hadn’t seen it in over forty years.  She had been thrilled to be in Paris for the first time where it was shot along with at a studio  in London.  The film was beautiful, opening with an extravagant can-can at the Moulin Rouge.  There’s not much dancing afterwards as the movie tells the story of Toulouse-Lautrec.  This nice biopic made for a relaxing, stress-free cinema experience in the hands of a master filmmaker.

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race--H. G. Wells

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Cannes Day Two

I was this first to park a bike at 8:15 this morning at the new, long-needed bike rack in front of the Debussy.  There are 22 arches, enough to accommodate 44 bikes.  Cyclists used to lock their bikes to the palm-ornamented barriers in front of the Debussy until “no bike parking” signs went up a couple of years ago, forcing us further away.

I was relieved as I approached the security check for the first time this year at the Palais that there wasn’t a pile of confiscated food and bottles, indicating that they may be more lenient than in the past. I had left my water bottle on my bike and had tried to hide my food for the day in secret pockets in my pack and vest.  The guard just gave a quick look into the main pocket of my pack without probing the other smaller zippered compartments.  I scampered up the several flights of stairs to the balcony in relief for the first of the 21 films in Competition—Jim Jarmusch’s vampire comedy “The Dead Don’t Die” starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sivigney.   After nothing but subtitled films yesterday I felt a wave of easy familiarity when the film opened with Murray and Driver sitting in the front seat of a police car and they started speaking unaccented English.

Jarmusch provided chuckles aplenty from the very start with his signature understated  wit coming from a host of off-beat characters including Steve Buscemi sitting at the counter in a diner wearing a “Make America White Again” hat talking with Danny Glover.  The zombies don’t show up for awhile and when they do the killing is less gruesome than the horror genre usually provides, with the gentle humor continuing to predominate.  Tilda Swinton as a wacky Scottish funeral parlor operator in this small one-diner town could have stolen the picture if she’d had a larger role.  But as with the picture as a whole, she wasn’t fully developed, making this more of a pleasant ditty of a film, than anything of much significance.

“Queens of the Field” was the first of three French films on my docket for the day.  It was one of five films on soccer I spotted in the program, all in the Market other than a documentary on Diego Maradonna with an Out of Competition slot. The Queens are a group of women, many of whom are wives of the men who play soccer for the town team,  who have been recruited to replace the men on the team who all have been suspended for their final three games of the season for getting into a fight in a game that resulted in the assault of a referee.

The town team, which had a rich 90-year history, is in danger of being relegated to a lower level, essentially putting it out of existence if it doesn’t gain at least a tie in the remaining three games.  None of the men in town are in favor of the women playing soccer. Even the coach is initially adamantly opposed to the idea.  The wealthy husband of one of the wives goes to extreme measure to sabotage  her and the team.  Only a couple of the women have any soccer experience.  They are decimated in their first game, but then manage to recruit a former National-level player who is out on parole, who makes them competitive.  They still have much to overcome.  The plot doesn’t lag at any moment as they persevere.

I thought arriving an hour ahead of time for the two o’clock screening of the first Un Certain Regard film at the Debussy, “Bull” from the US, would be plenty of time.  I even paused to fill my water bottle, which I was greatly regretting when I saw how long the line was and how slowly it was moving.  As it was, I was the very last person to gain entrance to the 2,300-seat theater and was allowed to sit in a prime reserved seat that hadn’t been needed just as the lights dimmed.  Evidently the word was out to the merits of this very fine film about a delinquent 14-year old girl living in a rundown neighborhood outside of Houston.  Her  mother is in prison and is being looked after by her very perturbed grandmother.

The girl wins the favor of her older delinquent friends by inviting them to crash the home of a black neighbor, a former bull rider, who goes away on weekends to work in rodeos in the very dangerous job of distracting bulls after they’ve thrown their riders.  They drink his alcohol and pop his pills and have a wild time.  When he returns home and finds his house trashed, he knows she is responsible and calls the police.  The grandmother begs the guy not to press charges and let her grandchild  clean the house.  Thus develops a friendship between these two very authentic personalities.  This was cinema-verité at its finest, an all-round exceptional film that will receive much attention in the months to come.

I didn’t expect to gain entry to the less than one hundred seat screening room showing “Grand Isle” starring Nicholas Cage, especially after it was given prominence in the day’s “Screen” magazine schedule of Market screenings.  But it was less than half full. Cage plays an alcoholic Vietnam vet married to a former lounge singer.  They are living in her family’s large home in Louisiana.  Cage terrorizes a young man, a former military man himself, who comes to repair his fence, while his wife tries to seduce him.  The plot becomes so far-fetched and convoluted that Cage and everyone else who ended up in this fiasco ought to be doing everything in their power to destroy every copy of it.  The first-time director introduced it saying there would be no credits, as he was putting the final touches on the film.  How he ever convinced Cage to submit to this would make a better movie than the movie itself.  No one else in the film looked as if they’d ever acted in anything other than community theater.  It was a full-on embarrassment and disaster.

I quickly put it behind me with the intensely real, socially-conscious “Battle of the Classes,” a French film about the struggles of a boy to survive in a school outside of Paris where he is the only white. The film opens with his parents, the father a 40-year old drummer in a punk band long past it’s prime and mother an accomplished lawyer, talking with a real estate agent about selling their condo in Pairs.  The extreme idealist father doesn’t want to sell it for more than the 200,000 euros they paid for it a decade ago, while the agent says they are crazy as it is worth more than twice that and they’ll need all that to afford the house they want to buy for 450,000 euros in the neighborhood the lawyer, who is of Arabic descent, grew up in.  She is more of a realist than he, so they do get 399,000 euros for it.

Their values mostly coincide, and they both agree that they don’t want to take their son out of his public school as all the other white parents are doing, putting their children in better private schools not dominated by blacks and Arabs.  When their son continues to have a hard time of it, particularly mocked for being an atheist condemned to hell by all his religious classmates, they try to transfer him to another public school by pretending to live in its district.  The black woman in charge was a fan of his dad’s punk band and remembers his song about fucking the Pope in the ass and is quite appalled when they try to cheat the system, accusing them of being worse than right-wingers.  There is considerable substance to this film as the parents attempt to resolve their son’s predicament.

I was greatly looking forward to my next screening, a return of Kim Ki-Duk, the South Korean provocateur, whose breakout film, “The Isle,” was the most audacious film of 2000, and the first of several startlingly original films.  But it has been quite a few years since he has offered a film.  And what was playing here was just two screenings, both in theaters of less than 50 seats.  Back in his heyday there would have been hundreds lined up to see his next.  But this time there were just a handful standing off to the side when I showed up.  A sign said “Guests Only.”  And that was being adhered to.  I hung out a bit hoping the guardian might relent and let the few of us uninvited in if there were empty seats, but there was none of that.

My delay prevented me from getting in to see the special screening of “Easy Rider” in the Buñuel two flights of stairs up.  I joined the line, but fell twenty-five people short.  That at least allowed me to bike to the Croisette for the final Director’s Fortnight screening of the night—a French surreal black comedy, “Deerskin.”

A goofy guy infatuated with his vintage deerskin jacket with tassles offers people money to let him film them throwing their jackets in the trunk of his car and saying, “I’ll never wear a jacket again,” then drives off with their jackets saying, “I have proof you don’t want your jacket.”  He checks into a remote hotel and tells a bartender he is shooting a movie.  She says she is an aspiring film editor.  She is as much of a schmuck as him and withdraws all her money to help him make the movie he pretends to be shooting  after he enlists her to edit it.  There are chuckles along the way though this harmless, inconsequential film won’t find an audience beyond the film fest and small art theater circuit. 

I’ve gone two days without a documentary, maybe a first.  Every time I crossed paths with Ralph today he was raving about a doc about the street photographer Jim Marshall he saw while I was watching the soccer movie.  If I’d only been turned away from the Nicholas Cage movie I would have seen a doc on the chef Diana Kennedy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Cannes Day One

As I cycled to Cannes I was excited that among the changes this year was that one could pick up one’s credentials two days before the festival began, a day earlier than usual.  The best part was that one was given an official bag full of information on the festival including  the program of the 1,500 or so films being screened.  Since It takes a full day to get through the schedule, having an extra day to peruse it before the films started was going to be make the ordeal much easier.

I was hoping to camp outside of Cannes just over the summit of the final mountain ridge I had to cross on Saturday night and speed down Sunday morning arriving by nine a.m. to pick up the goodies, but I fell twenty miles short of my goal and didn’t make it until noon.  But it didn’t matter, as even though I was able to grab my credentials, the bags weren’t being distributed until the next day, requiring a return visit to the accreditation office.  Getting the credentials earlier speeded up the process, but not much.

My pass was printed out by a machine in a kiosk right along the harbor.  There was no wait, but I had my first encounter with the ubiquitous ever-zealous festival security that can be a headache when I set down my handlebar bag to pull out my iPad to retrieve the special number I had been sent for my early processing. A guard pounced on me, strongly reprimanding me for having an unattended bag.  When he left, the young woman overseeing the operation apologized for his behavior and said she would speak to him about it.

When I finally got the program first thing Monday morning there was the exciting news that there were five screenings that day, an unexpected bonus.  Ordinarily the movies didn’t start until the next day.  Three of the screenings though were trailers and one was by invitation only.  It was just as well that there was only one movie to tempt me, as whatever time I spent watching a movie was time I needed to dissect the program.

The movie was a French comedy that wasn’t scheduled to open until October.  It was shown at two p.m., just when I needed a break from reading the synopses of dozens of movies.  “Play” was a perfect hors d’oeuvre, just the type of movie I search for in the market that holds up a mirror to French society, giving me added insight into my surroundings for the next couple of months.  It was the compilation of twenty-five years of videos that a fourteen year old starred shooting of his life when he was given a video camera.  He’d finally decided to try to reduce the hundreds of hours of video he had shot well into his marriage into a movie.  He follows his life from an awkward teen into awkward adulthood.  It doesn’t begin very auspiciously, but it actually works.

About half the French films I’ll see will have a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  This one did not but it did refer to it.  One of the teenager’s friends boasts to him that a Dutch girl he  claims to have seduced when they were on a trip to Barcelona was impressed with the size of his penis and called it the Eiffel Tower.

Having taken time for a movie I fell thirty pages short of reading all 152 pages of the one paragraph descriptions of all the movies before they started playing.  I had only come upon one movie on bicycling so far, but three others included a mention of cycling.  One referred to a woman killed while riding her bike.  Another mentioned kids riding BMXs and the last was an Un Certain Regard film, an American comedy called “The Climb,” that pictured two guys on bikes in the mountains.  The actual biking movie was a Spanish animated featured called “Bikes” and it was playing only once and that was today.  It would be my fourth movie of the day.

I could have begun the day with a film about Little League baseball, but I opted for a French film starring Marion Cotillard—“Little White Lies.”  She is one of a group of ten relatives and friends who surprise a big-time Parisian restaurant owner at his getaway home on the Atlantic coast for his 60th birthday.  He’s not happy to see them at all, as he has been estranged from them and is greatly depressed over losing his restaurant, which none of them know about, not even his girl friend.  All of them have their torments.  There is a lot of arguing over past issues. Cotillard is the most volatile of the lot.  The script rampages from one unpleasant scene to another, interrupted by some reconciliation and play, including Cotillard and two others jumping out of a plane and the two gay guys going off on a bike ride on electric-assist fat-tired bikes.  This was a consummate French relationship movie that manages a happy ending.

I had a slight breather with my next film, “Abe,” a Brazilian production about a 12-year old boy by the name of Abe whose mother is  a Jew and father an Arab. It takes place in New York City.  The rival strong-willed relatives both want him to embrace their religion and culture. The Brazilian connection is a black Brazilian who runs a food stand that Abe is attracted takes an interest in, as he has a fascination with and talent for cooking.  He ends up working for the Brazilian unknown to his parents.  There is lots of arguing along with marital strife in this movie too, but it is more heartwarming than heartrending.

It was back to French fare featuring another French icon, Isabelle Huppert, in “Pure as Snow,” directed by the lone director of note among the day’s films—Anne Fontaine.  Huppert owns a luxury hotel and is incensed when her boy friend takes an interest in a ravishingly beautiful young woman on her staff, so Huppert arranges for her to disappear.  The movie momentarily lapses into a horror movie when the young woman finds herself running for her life in a forest in the mountains and then wakes up in bed with a seedy young man hovering over her. She turns into a nymphomaniac seducing man after man in the small village she turned up in.  It looked as if Huppert was just going to have a cameo in the movie, but half an hour later she turns up at this village hoping to finish off the job that the person she hired failed to do.  This joins “Elle” as one of the lesser role choices that Huppert has chosen.  If this movie had been directed by a man, rather than a woman, it would be savaged by feminists.

I was more than ready for “Bikes” after this.  The town of Spokesville is a cyclist’s dream, inhabited solely by bikes, and fully ornamented with bike parts—chains adorning roofs and earrings, arches of handlebars and chainrings, pyramids of freewheels and other adornments.  Each bike has a talking face, some with mustaches formed by bike parts that have a bend to them. There is no need for bike racks because bikes, being the sole beings in this town,  go in and out of buildings.  The tranquility of the town is upset when bankers pushing gas-powered bikes convince just about everyone to convert to putting engines on their bikes.  This leads to a rebellion by those unwilling to accept the noise and pollution they create.  And good wins out.

I ended the day with two more French films.  France’s leading television book critic loses his job when he dares to question that a deceased small-town baker was the author of a best-selling book published after his death in “The Mystery of Henry Pick.”   The critic goes to the small town in Brittany where he lived to get to the bottom of the mystery.  He goes to its library that has a special room of rejected manuscripts where the book was found the year before.   That leads to a local book club and back to Paris with the daughter of the baker.  Their arrival in Paris gives the festival’s first grand image of the Eiffel Tower.  As with the other three French movies so far, the dialogue is fast and furious and the characters all creditable French prototypes—solid, cinema fare, not necessarily worth seeking out, but enjoyable if one is in the mood.

The final film, “The Pink Thief,” was in a different class.  It was semi-slapstick for the Chinese Market about a young Chinese woman arriving in Paris to marry her French boyfriend.  The dialogue alternates between Chinese and French and the subtitles too, so I had to rely on my limited French.  The girl is flighty and flakey as she initially frolics about Paris pulling her red suitcase photographing and videoing all the sites of Paris beginning with the Eiffel Tower, which is interjected multiple times.  It takes its title from an equally goofy guy in a pink suit who periodically steals one of three small paper bags she is carrying, each with a role of toilet paper as a ruse to the pickpockets she fears, so they’ll simply grab one of those bags rather than something more valuable.  I stuck with this movie nearly to the end as I had to wait for Ralph to get back to our apartment before me as he had our lone key.   

Friday, May 10, 2019

Pont du Gard

It was a bit much to expect to find a giant Yellow Jersey dangling from the ancient, towering Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, advertising itself as the start of Stage 17 of this year’s Tour, but there was at least a large, prominently displayed billboard at the entry to this World Heritage Site announcing itself as a Ville Étape.  In all the years of The Tour it has never been accorded the honor.  It is one of three of the thirty-four Ville Ètapes in this year’s Tour to be first-timers. 

No one could tell me the precise departure point of the peloton, but surely the spectacular three-tiered 160-foot high bridge will be in the background.  The day before the peloton will be riding over the bridge on its way to Nimes.  That will produce iconic images that will endure for as long as The Tour endures.

A map outside the museum half a mile from the Pont du Gard over the Le Gardon River showed France’s 38 World Heritage Sites.  This isn’t the first time one has featured at a stage start.  A few years ago the Grand Départ was at Mont St. Michel.  Quite a few are cathedrals that have been near a stage start or finish—Chartres, Bourges, Reims Amiens.  This stage will also take the peloton past the Roman amphitheater in Orange, another World Heritage Site.  And the stage the day before in Nime will include its Roman coliseum, also a World Heritage Site.

It was a relief to get to the Pont du Gard down on the flats of Provence after three days up on the cold and rugged Massif Central.  I camped one night amidst patches of snow.  I had camped 1,500 feet lower the night before and had to bundle up in my lightweight, summer sleeping bag to stay warm.  When I climbed up into the snow the next day I kept hoping the road would dip down before I camped, but it remained up on a high plateau.  Miraculously, an hour before I planned to camp I came upon a shawl along the road still retaining the perfume of whoever lost it, a most beneficent offering from whatever deities look after touring cyclists.  It provided a much needed extra layer to get me through the night.  As it was, I had to pull out all stops to stay warm, including tucking the lower third of my sleeping bag inside the duffel bag I had brought to stuff all my gear in on my flight over. 

I had included the Massif Central on this year’s route to Cannes, something I didn’t have to do, to see what preparations Saint-Flour, a picturesque city high up on a volcanic butte, was making for its hosting of the departure of Stage Ten.  All it had were a scattered few posters so far.  The best decorations I had seen weren’t in any of the three Ville Étapes I visited, but were in the tiny village of Chapelle-Laurent on the thirty-two mile transfer between Ville Étapes Brioude and Saint-Flour.  They were left over from the 2008 Tour that had passed through the village.  They were a mural and a pyramid of bikes the town had mounted for the occasion and had retained to celebrate that momentous occasion when The Tour had passed through.  Sometimes out-of-way villages that were once graced by The Tour will put up a plaque to honor the occasion, but rarely anything as grand as these, a strong daily reminder of that momentous occasion when millions of eyes around the world were upon it.

Another draw of the Massif Central was to visit the grave of France’s preeminent cycling journalist, Pierre Chany, in the tiny town of Chanteuges.  Besides wrIting for L’Équipe he authored many books including biographies of Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi and the definitive history of The Tour.  He covered 49 Tours and died in 1996 a month before what would have been his 50th.  He had been collaborating on a book about his fifty Tours.  It had been all set to go to press when he died and had been much anticipated.  The book was published anyway with the title of “Man of Fifty Tours.” 

He was buried in his family tomb along with his wife and sister and others.  There was nothing cycle-related on the tomb among the array of plaques.  It was a rare French cemetery with grass.  The cemetery was on the outskirts of the town and had been expanded.  It had a much larger population than the town of 400 up on a steep cliff-side. 

I encountered a retired French cyclist up on the Massif Central on his way to Spain and the Camino de Santiago.  He had no complaints about all the strenuous climbing,  as he had an electrical assist.  For two days until I descended I had been under strain for long stretches in my lowest gear, climbing and climbing, reduced to an average of eight miles per hour for the day, not even covering sixty miles.  He warned me that an all-day rain was predicted for the next day when I would be leaving the Massif.  And that prediction held true.  

It started as a light drizzle as I broke camp.  I put on my booties for the first time and wore my down jacket under my rain jacket with the temperature just 45 degrees.  There were a couple of lulls during the day, but late in the afternoon as I was completing my descent back down to lower elevations it came down in near torrents. I had been reconciled to staying in a campground, knowing it would have facilities for me to hang my wet gear, but I was now getting so soaked without the opportunity to dry I knew I would have to find a hotel, something I have never done in sixteen years of cycling in France other than last year in Lyon when I resorted to a train to get from one side of the country to another during The Tour, arriving after dark.  I was headed to the large city of Alès with hotels aplenty.  I found a small, moderately-priced family-run hotel by the train station.  The owners didn’t speak any English, but they couldn’t have been friendlier, even offering to put my wet gear in their drier. 

My legs were depleted from three days of strenuous riding in mountainous terrain.  They greatly welcomed the minimal strain of the flats. Having reached the south the temperatures were warmer and I was welcomed by arcades of plane trees and vineyards.  And alongside the road, just as they had been all the way down from Paris, were dandelions in full flurry.  They had just been erupting when I left Chicago.  They are one of the lesser known of those New World products that were part of the Columbian Exchange.  Corn, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and chocolate get all the attention, but the dandelion may be the most pervasive. 

With the color yellow synonymous with The Tour de France, the dandelion doesn’t seem to be regarded as an unwanted weed. With this being the centennial of The Yellow Jersey, introduced at the 1919 Tour, thirteen years after the inaugural Tour, Yellow has added significance this year. A museum in Nice has a special exhibit honoring The Yellow Jersey.  That will be my first destination after Cannes.

It is now less than two hundred miles to Cannes on roads I know well.  I know where the best camping is and which towns have spigots dispensing free-flowing spring water.  It is France at its finest.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Brioude, France

It wasn’t until I’d pedaled 319 miles on my sixteenth annual Paris to Cannes ride that I intersected with this year’s Tour de France route in Brioude south of Claremont-Ferrand and Vichy up on the Massif Central.  I didn’t encounter a single Yellow Vest the entire way other than one I spotted laying in the back window of a car.  There was no indication if it was the garment of a protester or just the standard article that every motorist is required by law to have in their possession in the event of a breakdown.

There may be outbreaks of protest in Paris and elsewhere in France, but my ride through La France Profonde has been as peaceable as ever aside from a brief hail storm to go along with a couple of days of rain.  I’ve had one glorious sunny day of 70 degree temperatures, but otherwise it has been cold.  My first day on the Massif Central I awoke to a temperature of 37 degrees and an incensed dog.  I was camped in the woods off a dirt road that was the Sunday morning trekking route for an older guy and his canine.  The dog sniffed me out and approached in a tizzy.  I could see he was wearing a halter and could just barely make out his owner in the distance through the trees.  I’m not sure if the owner could see me, but he didn’t call off his dog.  He finally retreated after I threw a few sticks at him, not caring to play fetch.

Otherwise the camping has been uneventful and as idyllic as one could want in forests with such thick and soft layers of leaves a sleeping pad is hardly necessary.  It is camping as it’s meant to be, unlike my recent ride around California, when nearly every night I was scrounging like a desperate rodent looking for a nook to burrow into when it got dark.  With it light until nine o’clock here the hardest part of the camping is passing up one perfect spot after another.  Not needing the cover of dark to make my disappearance into the woods allows me untold flexibility.

Brioude, population 6,670, is the first of three Ville Étapes on this year’s Tour route that I’ll be able to scout out on my ride to Cannes.  It has the honor of hosting the finish of the Bastille Day stage on July 14.  It’s City Hall had a giant Yellow Jersey over its entrance announcing the coming of The Tour.  Otherwise there were no decorations yet around the small city other than a couple of storefronts who had their windows painted with some scene relating to The Tour.  Brioude was a Ville Départ in the 2008 Tour. I was happy to renew my acquaintance with the cobbled narrow streets of its medieval center and to discover the rare amenity of a row of electric outlets outside an auditorium across from the toilette publique.  Though my generator hub is helping keep my iPad charged, its always nice to know where auxiliary charging can be found.

I may not have time to linger in Brioude come Tour time, as it is 32 miles to the start of the next stage in St. Flour through very demanding up and down terrain.  I’ll probably want to start riding it before the peloton arrives in Brioude.  It won’t be of paramount importance to get a good start on the next day’s stage before dark as the day after is a Rest Day.   If I fall a little behind, I can make it up while the peloton takes a day off.

My favorite French meal, caussolet, tastes a little better this year after learning from a book I read just before I left, “A Bite-Sized History of France,” that this meaty bean stew is so revered by the French that a law was passed mandating the percentage of meat in the canned version so that manufacturers couldn’t dilute it.  That hasn’t prevented them from reducing the larger canned version from 850 grams to 840 grams, but it is reassuring to know they can’t start skimping on the hunks of meat that comprise a quarter of the volume of the can.  

The book, which narrated the history of France as it related to food, devoted a chapter to cassoulet tracing its origins to over five hundred years ago.   Three nearby towns in the southwest of the country all lay claim to it.  The recipe has evolved over the centuries, as the present white bean used in the stew was brought over from the New World. The three or four times a week I end my day with a can of cassoulet in my tent I supplement it with couscous, which also received mention in the book.  It too is popular with the French, who eat more than anyone else in Europe.  

There was no commentary though on menthe à l’eau, the drink made from mint syrup that for me is one of the great joys of France and that I drink continually as I pedal along.  Wine so dominates the attention of visitors to France that this fabulously refreshing drink doesn’t get the attention it deserves.  Those who don’t appreciate it are prone to ridicule it for its bright green color, likening it to mouth wash or battery acid.  Another book on France I read pre-departure, “Notes from the Cevennes,” by an English poet who has made the Cevennes his home for a couple of decades, alluded to and semi-blasphemed menthe á l’eau without naming it when he mentioned the row of “lurid-colored bottles of sirop” in his local bar, as if he wouldn’t dare drink such a thing.

Neither book paid tribute to The Tour de France or the bicycle despite their strong presence in French culture.  I continually receive affirmations of respect and longings to be doing what I’m doing from people I encounter, whether friendly toots from motorists or people warmly engaging me expressing interest in my travels.

Even before I arrived in France an older French man in line with me at O’Hare waiting to check in at the Air France counter front of me asked if I had a gravel bike in my box,  and then waxed on about the joy of biking in rural France.  One of the movies I watched in flight, “Nobody’s Perfect,” a French comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, included a scene with a pair of Middle-Aged Men in Lycra (MAMILs) stopping to ask Deneuve directions.  I see many of the species out riding on weekends and they are all happy to see me.  A large group of them who were stopped along the road all bowed as I passed.

I am especially attuned to the contrast of touring in France compared  to the US with my 2,500 mile ride around California a month ago so fresh in my mind.  Besides the ease of camping and the positive reaction from motorists here in France there is the dramatic difference in the size of the vehicles.  Americans drive tanks compared to the dainty, reasonably-sized vehicles of the French.  And for better or worse the roads of France are litter free, so I’m spared scanning the roadside for things to scavenge, including coins.

Not even ten miles into my ride I had my first spontaneous “Wow” moment when I came upon a giant dragon sculpture in a roundabout.  Roundabouts alone are a pleasing amenity, and their art even moreso.  Nothing personifies the aesthetic-sense of the French more.  Signs preceding towns announcing a vide-grenier (town-wide garage sale) or a blood drive or the circus coming to town are unique to France. I also know I am in France when I come upon gypsy encampments on the outskirts of towns and also stray white vans (a portable bordello) in a pullover by a forest and the stone-walled cemeteries with their water spigots.  The occasional smoker reminds me I rarely see one in America anymore.  I do not look forward to having to inhale cigarette smoke while waiting in line at Cannes.  But there is plenty of other things at Cannes I do greatly look forward to, not the least of which is the World Premier of Quentin Tarantino’s latest—“Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”   My ten-day ride through La France Profonde is cleaning my palette for the twelve days of Big Screen art to come commencing next Tuesday.  

Saturday, April 27, 2019

“Riis, Stages of Light and Darkness,” by Bjarne Riis

For a stoic Dane who adamantly didn’t wish to make a spectacle of himself with tears when he finally made his public confession to taking drugs, as had Richard Virenque and Erik Zabel and many others, Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour de France, cites many instances of having been brought to tears in his memoir “Riis, Stages of Light and Darkness,” published in Danish in 2010 and then two years later in English.   He does manage to hold off the tears in his televised confessional press conference in May of 2007, six years before Lance Armstrong caved in with Oprah, but he does admit to tears before going on stage when his wife wishes him well and almost succumbing to them when asked how it felt to tell those close to him that he had been doping after denying it for years.

He had hoped finally admitting to his drug-taking would give him some peace, but it continued to weigh on him.  His team press officer, Brian Nygaard, was a close friend and could sense he didn’t feel fully unburdened even months later.  When he expressed concern for his well-being Riis wrote, “I couldn’t hold back my feelings, or the tears any more. ‘It has been hard,’ was all I was able to say before I started crying.”  He cried when he told his team at the start of The Tour de France in London six weeks after his confession that he thought it best that he not accompany them during the upcoming three weeks of racing even though he was the man in charge, as he didn’t want to be a distraction with the press continuing to make an issue of his drug-taking and the prevalence of drugs in the sport.

Tears accentuate many of the key moments of his life.  His parents divorced when he was young.  Riis split his time living with his father and grandmother, rarely seeing his mother, who had gone to live on a commune.  When his father would spend time with a girl friend, tears would stream down Riis’ face when he’d have to say goodbye to his father.  His father was an amateur racer. Riis earned a new bike from him when he won his first race as an eight year old.  He brought his father to tears when he won The Tour de France, and his wife too. Riis speaks of tears at the finish of the 1989 Tour when he rode as a domestique for Laurent Fignon, who lost to Greg LeMond by eight seconds after starting the final stage, a time trial from Versailles to Paris, with a seemingly insurmountable advantage of fifty seconds.  Fignon’s devastating loss had Fignon in tears and many of his teammates, but not Riis.

Though he remained immune to tears then and succeeded in suppressing them during his drug confession, he lost the battle when his father died.  His father’s death affected him so strongly he didn’t feel as if he could compose himself to give a eulogy.   His long-time physiotherapist could tell what a state he was in and offered to give him a treatment.  As he prodded his body, Riis let out all his pent-up emotions and sobbed for fifteen minutes.  His fifteen-year old son was in the room.  Riis could see he was in a state of shock never having  seen his seemingly stoical father in such a state. But it opened the door to them to express their feelings with one another.

It wasn’t the first time his son had seen him cry, as there were tears when he and his wife told their two sons they were getting divorced a year after he won The Tour de France.  Riis had fallen in love with a Danish handball champion he met at the 1996 Olympics.  They had tried to avoid each other after establishing a friendship at those Atlanta Games that never went behind a kiss, but their connection was too deep and genuine to keep them apart.  When they reconnected several months later, she as a fellow elite athlete could fully commiserate with Riis’ struggles to maintain his Tour-winning form.  The year after his win he dropped to seventh, as his young teammate Jan Ullrich won The Race.  He was eleventh the following year in the Festina-marred edition.  An elbow-injury forced him to miss the 1999 Tour and led to his retirement.

There are tears sprinkled though the ten plus years the book covers of Riis’ career as the owner and director of a team.  Two more were drug-related.  Both he and Iván Bssso are tearful when Riis has to dismiss him from his team before the start of the 2006 Tour when Basso was linked to the Puerto blood-doping revelations. The wife of Bo Hamburger, another of his riders, is brought to tears when he tested positive for EPO and was suspended.  There were tears of happiness all around for his rider Nicki Sørensen when he won a stage in the 2009 Tour.

Unfortunately the book was written before Peter Sagan joined his team and Oleg Tinkov became the owner, two dynamic personalities who would have further enlivened the book.  As it is, it was plenty rich in material.  When he entered the pro peloton in 1986 he gave no promise that his career would warrant a book.  He was fortunate to land a position on a small Luxembourg team.  Despite no wins in three years Fignon recognized in him the qualities of a strong domestique and recruited him to his System U team in 1989.  He later praised Riis as “the most loyal rider I’ve ever come across.  He’s never tried to ‘steal’ anything from anyone, and never tried to trick anyone.  Guys like Bjarne are hard to find in this game.”

Riis finished 95th in his first Tour in 1989, which he comsidered “not bad.”  He used the same words to describe his 107th place in 1991 after not finishing in 1990.  He began taking EPO in 1993 and saw its immediate effect finishing fifth.  Until then he’d relied on cortisone and caffeine, which also elevated his performance, but not to the extent of EPO.  His wife was aware of his drug-taking and was accustomed to seeing him give himself injections, but she was leery about EPO and thought that was going too far.  At that point Riis limited what he let her know.

Besides the drugs Riis had another secret weapon, an herbal green tea that he would swig before the finish of a race, giving him a quick energy boost like taking a caffeine tablet.  Occasionally he would open a teabag and swallow its contents. Once the particles went flying in the wind.  George Hincapie noticed and blurted, “What the hell was that Bjarne?  Gun powder?”

Another of his ploys was outftiing a bike with a large chain ring that was smaller than normal in the 1996 Tour when he ended Miguel Indurain’s five-year reign. He switched to the bike just before the climactic Huatacom climb so he could trick his adversaries into thinking he was much stronger than them being able to ride in his large chain ring when they were all in their small ring.  “I could see it in their eyes,” he wrote. “Each time I attacked, it was in the big ring, while they struggled in their small chainrings.  It was that “secret gear” that did it for them.”

He rode the last seven kilometers on his own, winning the stage while wearing the Yellow Jersey that had he assumed seven stages earlier in the Alps.  He extended his lead over his 22-year old teammate Ullrich and pretty much secured the win.  He described the last few kilometers as being “painful. Very painful.”  But as a true cyclist is “let the pain be my friend.”  Riis traced his relationship to pain on the bike all the way back to his first race as an eight-year old. He said he could ignore the pain in his legs then simply by thinking about the new bike that was awaiting him if he could beat the five others he was competing against in a time trial.  He started last and overtook all of them.  Bradley Wiggins recently commented on his podcast that pain is okay, but not suffering.

I’ve been hoping this book would turn up at a library that I’ve dropped in on ever since it came out, but could wait no longer when I noticed the ebook available for $4 on Amazon.  It was well worth the wait, though he made no mention of Christian Vande Velde who rode for him for three years from 2005-2007 before joining the inaugural Garmin team. The translation by Ellis Bacon, a noted English cycling journalist, flows effortlessly other than a few jarring Englishisms here and there—bloody and sod-all and rubbish.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Eastern Tennessee

Tennessee was the beneficiary of twenty Carnegie Libraries.  Fifteen of them still stand.  Four of them lay along a fifty-mile stretch in the far east of the state in a valley of a sort just west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Amidst this stretch of Carnegies is the birth place of Davey Crockett on the outskirts of Limestone, also the new home of artist friends from Chicago, Michael and Wendy, who moved there a year ago seeking warmer climes and cheaper property values than Chicago and also within range of the Appalachia Trail, which Wendy had hiked from start to finish a few years ago.  It continues to beckon her and inspire her painting.

They found a luxurious home built into a hillside on a quiet rural road of pastures and forests and small churches. Ever since their move Janina and I have been eager to visit their new idyll.  We had contemplated joining them for Christmas, as we have done over the years, but opted to delay until more amenable weather for outdoor activities.  It would have made a nice 1,300-mile bike ride there and back, but we didn’t have the time for such a luxury, so made a drive of it.  

We were able to go via Shelbyville, outside of Indianapolis, where Michael had recently erected a towering sculpture that has been receiving accolades world wide.  It stands in front of the town’s visitor center along the Big Blue River and represents the wind and rain that characterize the region.  We could see the swirling metal tubes representing thunderheads atop the edifice from half a mile away as we approached.  It was magnificent even in the overcast afternoon gloom, and positively spectacular when illuminated after dark.  

We had helped load more than a dozen of Michael’s smaller sculptures, including a cooker and a couple of fountains, that had dotted their yard in Berwyn for their move to Tennessee and were curious to see them in their new habitat.  The sculptures hadn’t been fully arranged, as their property is still taking shape as they finish building a studio and plug away at other projects, including restoring the original farmhouse that they plan to convert to a retreat for artists.  

Before searching out the area’s Carnegies we devoted Day One of our visit to a rigorous five-hour hike up a rugged steep trail ten miles from their home that brought us to within a few miles of the Appalachia Trail.  We didn’t encounter another soul, allowing Wendy’s dog Max to scamper along without leash.  As we approached the summit we noticed an article of clothing beside a boulder. It was Max’s sweater that Wendy had removed to sit on when they last hiked the trail three weeks ago.  She hadn’t realized she left it behind.

Janina and I would have stopped at the Carnegie in Johnson City, twenty-five miles north of their home, before we arrived, but we missed a turn and didn’t care to double back.  I was happy to make a bike ride of it, and luckily I did, as we would have been needlessly delayed trying to find the Carnegie.  I had to ask half a dozen people where it was, including two people at the city hall, before I found someone who knew.  

It was a mystery to most, as the Carnegie Library hadn’t been the town library, but rather the library on the grounds of a large complex for disabled veterans.  It wasn’t until I dropped in on Johnson City’s library that an older librarian, summoned by a younger, did I find someone who knew of the Carnegie, though she had to resort to the internet to find its precise location.  As always, my search allowed me to explore the environs, stopping in at an art gallery of work by veterans and also at the town’s original library that bore a resemblance to a Carnegie.  It now served meals to the needy. I was there at lunchtime and was invited to join them when I ducked my head in to see if this could possibly have been the Carnegie even though it bore the name of a judge with a plaque out front honoring him, not Carnegie.

There was no mistaking the Carnegie a couple miles away, not only by its pillars and stately elegance, but also with “Carnegie Library” chiseled into its facade.  It was now a lecture hall and was in use when I slipped in to give it a peek.  

The other three Carnegies were to the south of Wendy and Michael, another fifty-mile circuit that I did the next day.  The riding was fabulous on the lightly travelled hilly roads.  I could positively romp along with my bike free of panniers and some 3,000 miles on my legs from my recent ride around California and Arizona.  

It was another circuitous effort to find the first of this set of three Carnegies.  It was on the campus of Washington College in an isolated outlying area of Limestone.  There was no direct route to it through the hilly terrain.  When I found the small campus of just a handful of buildings early in the morning there was no evidence of anyone being there other than a lone parked car that could well have been abandoned.  It looked as if the school had closed down.  It wasn’t until later that I learned it had become an evening school for adult education.  There was an empty lot at the location I understood to be the address of the Carnegie.  It was actually up a hill and camouflaged by two wings added in the 1920s converting it into an administrative and classroom building.  

It was built from a grant given to two college libraries in the area, the other Tusculum College in Tusculum.  The latter was a still breathing, fully-functioning college and so was the library, which had had a large expansion to it in 2004.  

A few miles down the road the larger city of Greeneville complete with a Walmart and a recently opened Aldis had outgrown its Carnegie over forty years ago.  The local newspaper had taken possession of it and used it for storage.  One of the librarians at the new library had been a member of the Girl Scout troop that helped transport the books from the old library to the new, half a mile away.  She was very happy to share her memories of that experience and her youth in the Carnegie. She felt lucky to have become a librarian in the town she grew up in.  I often meet librarians who grew up in the town where they serve and have had a long-time intimate relationship with their library.  There is no holding back their fond recollections.

I had visited ten of the other Carnegies in Tennessee on my two rides through the state to the School of the Americas Vigil.  The only one remaining is in Jackson in the far west of the state.  If we didn’t have to be back to Chicago in time for a class Janina has been taking at the University of Chicago on Moby Dick, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, we might have included it on our drive back.  Fortunately not, as I do prefer to arrive at a Carnegie after a long bike ride.  It’s not far from the Mississippi and a few other Carnegies on the other side of the river that await me.  Jackson will exert some pull, as it will allow me to complete my fourth state in this Carnegie Derby tomgo alomg with Illinois, Indiana and Colorado.

On my return circuit to Michael and Wendy’s I met up with Janina and Wendy at Davey Crockett’s birth place, a state park along the Nolichucky River.  It’s campground was nearly half-filled with RVs.  The cabin of his birth in 1786 had been replaced by a replica.  The small visitor center had a map showing the several places Crockett had lived In Tennessee before his death in 1836 at the Alamo.  He served in Congress after he had moved to the far west of the state.  When he lost his seat in 1835 after voting against the Indian Relocation Act pushed through by Andrew Jackson, he ventured to Texas and joined up with those living in territory seeking independence from Mexico.  He was a well-known, virtual folk hero even then, but his martyrdom at the Alamo truly elevated him to a larger than life figure.  There have been more than twenty films about his life, including four silent films while he was still alive and another with John Wayne playing him.

He is neck-to-neck with Daniel Boone as the most glorified frontiersman. Boone was a Kentuckian who died in 1820.  Though they were both painted by the renowned portraitist Chester Harding, they never met.  A plaque near his birthplace stated that Crockett was two or three inches taller than the 5’8” Boone, as if that settled the issue of who was pre-eminent.

We could have spent days hanging out with Wendy and Michael and further exploring the region.  We’d especially like to join them when they set up Michael’s portable cooker on the Appalachia Trail and offer barbecued chicken and more for all the hikers.  It’d be fun too to spend a couple of Sundays dropping in on the multitude of small churches that abound in the area to hear their  preachers and size up their congregations.  Wendy caused a stir when she suggested to the church she chose to join that they put up a sign saying “Welcome to All” with a rainbow on it.

We were afforded a glimpse into the local culture when we dined at a restaurant that had a Wednesday senior catfish special of $6.99.  The place was packed.  We were so absorbed in our meal we hardly had time to study the many wall hangings and our fellow diners, though Janina had the sense they were all staring at us.  We biked the six miles to the restaurant and had nothing but pleasant reactions with what little traffic there was.  Wendy is already making a name for herself, being the lone member of her church who bikes to the services.  She and Michael will soon be integral members of their community. Janina and I will try to make an annual visit.