Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Diabolo Menthe

Like a lot of people who stood too close to the speakers once too often, I'm having problems with my hearing as I get older. A combination of deafness and tinnitus means that I now have that infuriating habit of endlessly asking people to repeat what they have just said (old jokes about deafness abound: "Is it Thursday today?" "Me, too, let's have a cup of tea!"). More annoyingly -- for me -- it means going to the cinema is no longer an enjoyable experience. The sheer percussive volume of modern cinemas is unbearable -- the Pearl & Dean adverts theme is like being under attack from a psychological warfare unit.

As I've mentioned before, despite being a lover of the medium, there are a surprising number of recent movies that I haven't seen. As a lonely postgraduate student at the far-flung University of East Anglia in 1976/7, I spent many enjoyable evenings filling in the gaps in my film knowledge, ranging from the wonderful Casablanca to the egregious Last Year at Marienbad. In our [slightly over-extended] youth, the Prof and I were habitual filmgoers: Bristol at the cusp of the1970s and 1980s offered three art-house cinemas, and it was the giddy heyday of Herzog, Tarkovsky, Wenders, and Greenaway. It was not unusual for us to see three movies in one week. But when we had kids at age 37 we more or less gave up cinema, along with pubs, smoking, and any other pleasures that involved leaving the house. So, I've now got a gap of about 20 film-free years to make up.

This means, of course, that there is a certain date-limited randomness to the films that loom large in my memory and imagination. Although I've got the years up to about 1985 well-covered, my view of the subsequent period is utterly dependent on what was shown on TV at a time I happened to be awake, what I videotaped and could be bothered to rewind and watch, or what videos and DVDs came my way. Out of the thousands of films released, I have a sample about as adequate as a single frame snipped from an entire reel. For example, the only Coen Brothers film I've ever seen is O Brother, Where Art Thou? No, really.

One film that has stayed with me, seen in Bristol in the Arnolfini then caught again a decade later one random evening on TV, is a 1977 French film by Diane Kurys, Diabolo Menthe (released in the Anglophone world as Peppermint Soda). The French art cinema, by and large, leaves me cold -- that reflexive obsession with the film-ness of films ("Mon dieu, don't you understand, we are only in a movie!") is so dull, dull, dull. But the French mainstream, which we hardly ever get to see, is different. The French, though fond of a stylish car chase, do like to make and see films about real people. Crazy!

Diabolo Menthe -- not, as far as I know, high on anyone's "must see" list of films -- seemed somehow to speak some truths about normal, suburban adolescence in the early 1960s: in that respect, it has things in common with another favorite film of mine, Gregory's Girl. So, as my daughter showed every sign of becoming an extreme cinéphile, not to say cinéaste, a couple of years ago I thought it would be a good film for her to see, if only to vary her Hollywood diet a little.

So, I tried to find it on DVD. To my surprise, this turned out to be rather difficult, but in the end I did find a copy in the USA on eBay. When it arrived, I had two unpleasant surprises. The first was that it was clearly a pirated DVD. Now, I'm not one to get sanctimonious about unlicensed copying, but I do object to being sold someone's home-made rip-off as the real thing. The second surprise was that the seller had put a copy of their catalogue in with the DVD, and it was 80% pornography, some of it deeply unpleasant. It turns out there is a specialist genre of porn, coyly described as "Coming of Age Films", and Diabolo Menthe was deemed by this moron to fall into that category. I sent it straight back. I've been a little wary looking for it since -- you don't want to end up on some police database, however innocently.

What I do have on DVD, is the BFI's release of Celine and Julie Go Boating (by Jacques Rivette, 1974 ). In fact, I've had it for over a year, and haven't yet dared watch it. I saw this film in a cinema in Norwich in 1976, and loved every minute of its 3 hours. But will it turn out to be a cinematic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Maybe I should wait a bit longer... After all, I also have Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior, Guillermo de Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and half a dozen other unwatched DVDs all stacked up.

And that's the problem with not going to the cinema any more: films end up being bought and used privately like books, and -- for anyone over 40, anyway -- that's not what films are about. Films are about going to see Born Free in 1966 with your parents in an enormous Leicester Square cinema and loving it so much that you stay in your seats and sit through the second performance, too. Or going to see Woody Allen's Sleeper in a grubby cinema on the Cowley Road in Oxford with a group of like-minded friends, and laughing as hard as only a like-minded audience can laugh. Or gradually tuning in to Tarkovsky's Mirror, ignoring the shuffling and muttering of those who don't get it and who leave after 20 minutes, ending up blissed out in a half empty cinema, with the urge to exchange addresses with everyone else left in the place when the lights go up.

And, above all, it never used to be anywhere near as bloody LOUD.


Martin H. said...

What's that, you say? Something about the cinema being to loud?

You're right about cinema, you know. The last film I saw, was 'Iris', a few years ago. Before that? Probably 'Tommy'. Oh err, I'm afraid I was the obnoxious twelve year old who rolled Maltesers down the aisle in the old Atherley cinema (instead of paying attention) and waited to see how long before the first one got crunched under the usherette's foot.

Dave Leeke said...

In AS Film Studies there is a requirement to understand the experience of the spectator - both yours and Martin's sound far more interesting than just about any student I've taught for the last 9 years!

As a child, I once got hit in the eye by a flying missile during a Saturday morning screening of "EL Cid". That might help explain some of the "trauma" that has caused the early stages of a cataract in that eye. In our local town flea pit a few years ago I - as the sole member of the audience - had to wake the projectionist afterwards so I could get past him to leave.

Anyhow, Mike, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a treat.

Mike C. said...

You both remind me that my original cinematic experience was at the local "community centre", where on Saturday mornings us kids could see cartoons -- loudly counting down from 10 to zero as the numbers appeared on screen in advance of the cartoon was part of the ritual, and I find it hard to restrain myself even now whenever I see that flickering countdown.

My daughter's doing AS Film Studies this year -- she's enjoying it, though having done GCSE Film Studies she's a bit ahead of the pack. In Pan's Labyrinth, she's warned me to shut my eyes when the fascist officer takes a bottle to the republican's face... "After that you'll be OK," she says.


Carsten S said...

After reading the plot summary, I think I watched Diabolo Menthe („Die kleinen Pariserinnen”), but I do not remember much of it. My favourite video rental store carries it, so I might watch it again. It seems that it has not been released on DVD, though. Do you still have a VHS player?

Paul Mc Cann said...

I don't quite understand your problem with the cinema sound being too loud. You did say you were going slightly deaf ?
I'm at the hearing aid stage now, because my wife likes to keep the television turned down to whisper level, and find the cinema a delight. I can hear things !

Mike C. said...


It's the tinnitus. It comes and goes, but when it's bad certain frequencies and volumes set off bizarre sympathetic buzzes and rattles in my head that are quite unpleasant and persist for days afterwards. It's not done anything for my music listening, either... Pianos, especially, can sound like they've been "prepared" by John Cage with nuts and bolts on the wires. I'm in remission at the moment, and avoid loud noises whenever possible to keep it like that!


Yes, "Die kleinen Pariserinnen" is the one (what an odd title to choose for the German version). We do still have a VHS player, but it's attached to our main TV which is dominated by the rest of the household watching Ugly Betty, Strictly Come Dancing and other must-see-in-real-time abominations, so I do all my film watching on my PC!

If you do watch it again, let me know whether it is still as good as it seemed 30 years ago!