Recently by Richard Goldstein

Arts journalists whose beat broaches popular culture bear a special relationship to slang. For us it is a vector of transgressive impulses that are often the source of vitality, one of the ways we can measure the influence of outsiders who intrude upon the signifiers of propriety. It announces the alter-identity of an emergent group. Indeed the replacement of black slang with the jargon of the internet is one sign of a shift, not just in the status of minorities but in the authority of tech over the social imagination. Think of it: a medium has replaced a class as the basis of linguistic innovation. Give me a think piece on that by midnight, and keep it to 500 words.

All the more reason why cultural journalists should be drawn to the new and authoritative dictionary of slang by the British scholar Jonathon Green. He happens to be a good friend, but he also knows a fine French cheese when he smells one, and he's a recognized expert on the subject of this book. The fruit of 17 years' work, Green's Dictionary of Slang (Oxford University Press) contains within its three volumes copious discussions of 110,000 words from all across the Anglophone world. Here you will find everything you always wanted to know about language that makes you feel like a badass when you use it, and more than you could have imagined about its endurance.

June 22, 2011 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

They were out in force at Cannes, in black T-shirts bearing the name of the martyred artist--not that Iranian director imprisoned by his government to prevent him from attending the festival, but Roman Polanski. Here in France quite a few filmmakers as well as some prominent politicians and intellectuals have joined the crusade to free him.

Reflecting the mood on the Croisette, Woody Allen told an interviewer that Polanski had paid a fair price for his "mistake." That would be 42 days in a hospital prison before he decided to flee the country--a fair price for drugging and seducing a 13-year-old girl, according to Allen, who added that Polanski had suffered enough over the years. Allen's empathy may stem from his own run-in with the courts. In 1993 he lost the right to unsupervised visits with his children when a judge ruled that his 7-year-old daughter needed protection from him, and after he ran off with her 22-year-old sister.

Despite the ample publicity it has received, the Polanski Liberation Front is hardly a mass movement in France. But it isn't hard to find men--especially men of a certain age--who regard his arrest in Switzerland and possible deportation to the United States as a grave injustice. And since Polanski is a French citizen, even the government got involved at first. The president talked to his Swiss counterpart, and the foreign minister voiced the hope that the whole affair would "come to a favorable resolution." The minister of culture, an important figure here, proclaimed himself "astonished" by Polanski's detention, but he grew silent after it was revealed that he had written a memoir in which he confessed--ruefully, it must be said--to engaging in sex tourism in Thailand. Since then the state has been, at least publicly, hors de combat.

May 25, 2010 7:22 AM | | Comments (8)

I've always taken it for granted that American culture is the most important culture in the world, and the evidence is irresistible. Its influence is felt everywhere, its modes copied endlessly, its forms enriched but not fundamentally altered by other societies. Here in Paris, for example, hip-hop has a broad appeal, which is why even the late Serge Gainsbourg, that master dilettante, ventured (awkwardly) into the genre. For a lot of French kids America is a giant middle finger raised to their parents, who tried to keep the U.S. out. They wear our brands, guzzle our Big Macs, and crave our gangsta rap. Our rebel styles are so attractive that it's plausible to argue, as one Frenchman with North African roots did recently in Le Monde, that the riotous behavior of the much-feared beurs--the teenaged sons of North African immigrants--is actually a product of American culture. Certainly the mass burning of cars in Paris (especially on New Year's Eve) recalls Detroit at its grimmest more than Algiers at its most insurrectionary. As does the rise of nasty French rap music by groups like NTM, a/k/a Nique Ta Mère, which means, yep, "fuck your mother." America, the great target of French calumny, is also the great source of French alterity, as it's been for a very long time.

But living in Paris has changed my perspective on American culture. I listen to the radio quite often here, especially a public station called F.I.P., which plays music in an astounding variety of idioms. I download whatever turns me on, and as a result I've amassed a collection of music I would never have heard in the U.S. Much of it is highly fusive, but not in ways I'd expect. For example, the style known as "balkan" mish-mashes gypsy, Romanian, Greek, and klezmer modes, usually with a rhythm that is Afro derived. My favorite is a song by a Romanian émigré named Shantel, in which he declares--in English, natch--"Some people say that I come from Russia/Some people think that I come from Africa/But...I come from Planet Paprika." The beat, I should add, is reggae.

April 16, 2010 6:03 AM | | Comments (4)

I don't go to the theater in Paris to experience the cutting edge. For that I look to the vast and astonishing art of the French graphic novel (known here as bande dessinée, or BD) and to the fusive music of African and Eastern European performers. Paris is an entrepôt for both those forms, but in the theater you're more likely to see a stimulating production of something that's been around the block. Greek tragedy is hot this year, along with classic American musicals.

Last month I saw A Little Night Music performed so discerningly, by an elegant cast (including Leslie Caron) and a large symphony orchestra, that it actually seemed like more than Stephen Sondheim's typical blend of Ravel and The Fantasticks. Last fall I caught the Odéon theater's rendition of Sophocles' Philoctetes, which felt like an entirely new experience. I'd seen Ron Vawter's version in New York during the AIDS epidemic, and so I remembered the play as a harrowing account of stigma. But at the Odéon it was a deeply moving study of conflict and devotion between fathers and sons. I've aged into this second interpretation, but I was still surprised. And that, for me, is the essential Parisian theatrical experience: rethinking.

Now I've seen the Odéon's latest production, a reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, a favorite on the Euro-festival circuit. The main reason why I wanted to see this play yet again was the prospect of Isabelle Huppert as Blanche DuBois. I've never liked the way Vivien Leigh played Blanche in the famous film, as an orchid on the verge of rotting. But I couldn't imagine Huppert being delicately decadent, any more than I can picture Colette as a hothouse flower.

March 26, 2010 11:51 AM | | Comments (0)

There are many words for gypsies, most of them spoken with a snarl in much of Europe. But no city is more willing than Paris to honor the most traditional market niche for the Rom. You can see them on the metro, mining for euros with an accordion or a guitar, an amplifier on a wheelie providing a rhythm track. They're called upon to entertain at fairs and fests, and there's a vital jazz scene here that goes by the name manouche. That's a Belgian word for gypsy, as well as the nickname of that country's most famous Rom, the greatest genius of European jazz, Django Reinhardt.

Give a Parisian promoter an excuse and he'll put on a festival honoring Django, and this year--the centennial of his birth--has produced all sorts of commemorations. But only one musician practices jazz manouche as taught to him by his celebrated grandfather, and this year he's in especially great demand. Last weekend I caught David Reinhardt and his trio at a tubular boite in the club district around Châtelet. I expected to hear the propulsive fluency branded by Django and imitated by many jazz guitarists since. What I got instead was a surprise.

March 1, 2010 9:55 AM | | Comments (0)


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