Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More French Class, s'il vous plaît

RE: Jim Motter's Guest Column in the Opinion Section of the July 6, 2009 Atlanta Journal Constitution

I fully sympathize with the plight of Jim Motter's son, and Mr. Motter's frustration with the state of foreign language instruction in today's public schools. However, Mr. Motter denigrates French as an “increasingly irrelevant,” while he gives Latin a pass because “this ancient language is an essential component of a 'classical' curriculum.” Without prioritizing French over Latin, let us note the double standard here: how is a dead langauge possibly more relevant than a tongue spoken today by more than 320 million people around the world?

Mr. Motter asks “What is the payback to Georgia from the study of French?” While French may no longer be the prestige language of the 19th and mid-20th centuries, it is still spoken today by peoples on 5 continents. A brief list: in North America, Québec, a province of the United States' number one trading partner; in South America, French Guyana; in Europe (beyond the obvious): Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium; in Asia: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; in Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Gabon, and Rwanda. Few of these may be considered economic powerhouses today – but thirty years ago, neither was China. So, to begin with, there is a tremendous pool of contacts across the world. 130 million people speak French as a primary language and fully 190 million more speak it as a fluent second language: 320 million Francophones is larger than the population of the U.S..

According to the Georgia Department of Economic development there 293 French businesses in Georgia, dealing with everything from telecommunications to cotton. More than 35 local Georgia businesses have operations in France, including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Invesco. As a professional in the biosecurity field, perhaps Mr. Motter has heard of Louis Pasteur, and more importantly the Paris research institute that bears his name? The Atlanta Chapter of the French/American Chamber of Commerce was a partner of the recent Paris Air show.

This is merely the economic argument, and it seems that the “payback” to Georgia for students proficient in French is already quite substantial. Yet Mr. Motter's language casts the entire affair in a economic light. French is also a vibrant language of culture and artistic expression, far beyond the “art songs of Gabriel Fauré.” French and Francophone cinema is amongst the most accomplished in the world. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie and A Very Long Engagement were just as popular in America as in France; Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers was screened by the Pentagon to help assess new strategies in the Iraq war. French philosophers and novelists continue to inspire people on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

All of this to demonstrate the vitality of the French language today. However, Mr. Motter's letter reveals a much more systematic and indeed sinister problem in our public education system: our disregard for foreign languages and cultures creates a zero-sum game when it comes to funding. As a foreign language teacher, I am fully sympathetic to the plight of Mr. Motter's son. He should be able to take German in high school – but why must this be at the expense of the French program?

Beyond the zero-sum bind in which public schools find themselves (and which conversely, they sometimes embrace to safeguard their pet projects), Mr. Motter's argument relies upon the idea of utility, specifically the perceived economic usefulness of a language. But his specific case leads us to a more global scale – literally. Without a doubt, the world's economic centers have shifted since the 1960's when Mr. Motter was in high school – and they will undoubtedly continue to shift. This is a why a broad and robust foreign language program should be essential to our public education system. Language courses do more than give students tools to communicate, they provide invaluable perspectives on other ways of thinking, on a plethora of cultures and practices. These courses sensitize students to the diversity of the world today and give them a better chance to interact positively with its inhabitants, whether they be from Berlin, Shanghai, Atlanta or Paris.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Les Croix de bois

After a harrowing brush with death defending a cemetery - of all places - the staunch if fatalistic Sulphart composes a grim tune : "Oui, tu l'auras ta croix / Si ce n'est pas la Croix de Guerre / Ce sera la croix de bois." This moment encapusilizes Raymond Bernard's 1932 film about the Great War: the dire circumstances of les poilus and their attemps to come to terms with the absurdity of their experience. Song is an important part of the French soldiers' lives, which oscillate wildly between drunken merry-making (that are more desperate than jovial) and fatal, oppressive artillery barrages in the wastelands between the trenches.

For contemporary audiences, Les Croix de bois doesn't bring much of anything to new to our knowledge and understanding of either World War One or historical filmmaking in general. Works such as J'Accuse! (Gance, 1919), All Quiet on the Western Front (Mileston, 1930), Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jeunet, 2004) and Paths of Glory (Kubrik, 1957) are better known and take more innovative approaches to the unprecendented horrors of the Great War. Content-wise, Les Croix de bois provides what had already become fixtures of the era on-screen: the filth of trenches, the hyprocisy of the aristocratic officer corps, the out-moded insanity of tactics and the desperate oscillations of hope and despair amongst the troops. Neither is their much to say about Bernard's cinematography. Aside from some dramatic tracking shots and hand-held camerawork that lend battle scenes a sense of urgency, the superimposition special effects seem to be either a non-sequitir in this otherwise very realistic movie, or incompletely realized - especially in comparison to the earlier J'Accuse! or the poetic Un long dimanche de fiançailles.

Nonetheless, it is illuminating to consider Les Croix de bois in the historical context of its creation and original release. Firstly, in 1932, very few French films had dealt with the still-fresh trauma of the Great War, which had decimated nearly a quarter of the adult male population and laid waste to vast swaths of the northeastern countryside. Also during this time, class tensions were high in France, and Bernard's film anticipates the pro-proletariat attitudes of the Popular Front by focusing on the clearly working-class foot soldiers. An interesting note is the quasi-sympathetic depiction of the German soldiers (again, through song), which in early works had been thoroughly demonized. Again, all of is much better treated in other films, notably Renoir's Grande Illusion (1937).

Les Croix de bois does include some laudable elements, notably in its realistic reconstruction of life on the front and the focus on the trials and tribulations of the common poilu. The hand-held camera work and rapid tracking shots of the battle scenes were rare at the time and their visceral nature certainly influenced later cinematic treats of war. There are some moments of elegaic poetry: protagonsit Demachy's visit to a comrade's grave, his prayer to the Virgin Mary ("We just want to survive"), langquid establishing shots of the desloate no-mans-land. These are occasional but heart-wrenching moments. Additionally, the ending is remarkable, even for the French who are more accostumed to unhappying endings: tragically (and with excruciating slowness) killing your protagonist is a dramatic statement about war's absurdity.

However, the tone of this ending is part of what's not quite right with the film: the obvious switch from location shooting to a studio set, the almost risible pacing and the non-sequitir superimpostion soliders (both French and German!) marching to their graves, each with a literal cross to bear. It's not over the top, in fact, it's insufficient, especially when compared to the expressivity of Jean Renoir's fluid camerawork and striking characterization or Abel Gance's visual reworkings of 19th-century poetic tropes that have the dead marching not to their graves but back home. Thus, Les Croix de bois may have had a certain influence on later war films (one can see direct borrowings in Paths of Glory), it remains a work of secondary importance.