Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fuck A Duck; A Flocking of Canards

The way the story gets told, he was, at bare minimum, bisexual. And that's to be gracious about the waterfowl. His most notorious film, 1926's Le Canard, was titled, allegedly, supposedly, in English, Fuck A Duck. Although that may itself be yet another canard. This is the kind of story where we'd better question everything, each and every quacking duck we stumble across.

Bernard Natan wasn't his real name. He was a Romanian Jew, so it's likely that Natan Tannenzaft, or Tannanzapf, probably wasn't really his real name either, though it does suggest he made his way across Germany at some point. And before he was shuttled back across Germany, he ended up owning Pathé, France's biggest film company. The one whose proud symbol is a rooster. Le Coq.

That's an actual fact — though declaring facts in the life of Bernard Natan is to take a swan-dive into the murkiest of French duckponds, into the cluckingest of coops poulet, into the near- impenetrable bird-poop of the closed-shutter French business-banking-judicial-governmental hierarchy of the 1930s. And then, even worse, to paddle into the time of the Vichy government, when the Nazi occupiers were pleased and bemused to discover that they'd at last invaded a country whose citizens were not only willing to rat out the Jews but to help provide the proper enforcement mechanism too. Worse yet, when you come up for air, all you can do is breathe in the successful silence that followed the grand national collaboration. Which became known, in the ex post facto aftermath myth, as le Resistance. Vive le Resistance!

Bernard Natan, Jew, foreigner, financial wizard, technological visionary, marketing seer and distribution innovator, studio chief and new owner of that ultra-modern French institution, Pathé, had appeared, the French courts were told, in scandalous stag films, lewd movies with elaborate sets and scenarios, films he wrote and directed and produced and then performed in as well. (As it was still The Silent Era, translation was a simple matter of, shall we say, inserts.) He was, they let it be known, a sodomite, a foreigner, a pornographer, a Jew, and, of course, surely, a swindler. En plus, he had purportedly fucked a duck. It was enough to make a judge's knife hesitate above his medaillions de maigret.

He was accused of fraud, of financial mismanagement, and he was, let it be said over and over again, a foreign Jew who fucked ducks on film — native ducks, noble French ducks. (Natan had, as well, been the first presenter of the much-beloved Mickey Mouse in France, though under the circumstances this probably didn't much help his case. Donald, uncharacteristically, retained his spluttering silence, as did les jeunes Huey, Dewey et Louis.) Early in his career, an emigrant, he had established a film company that produced nearly three dozen movies, and then he created his own production lab, Rapid Films, on rue Francouer, with labs and studios, workshops and soundstages that have since been transformed into le Femis, the French national film school. He created a advertising/publicity firm that still exists (under a less-troubling name, of course); he created the first footage of the 1924 Olympics; he built studios and stages and distributors and labs and projectors, and he produced major commercial movies.

In 1928, Charles Pathé, announcing that film was no longer profitable, stripped Pathé Cinema down to a shell company and sold off its assets. Bernard Natan risked acquiring it, transforming it into the extremely dynamic Pathé-Natan. He began purchasing theaters, sixty-two of them across France; in September of 1929, he produced France's first talkies, licensing RCA-Victor's sound system for his new theaters; he re-launched Pathé's newsreels and added sound to the pioneering international news source that would be be both distributed and widely imitated worldwide and which would lead to television news; by November of 1929, he had created France's first television company; it developed a transmission of television using telephone lines. He funded the research that led to the anamorphic lens, which led to Cinemascope and the contemporary wide-screen film. He innovated what we would now call vertical integration, controlling not only the means of production but the production labs as well, and the distribution and the theaters themselves. By 1930, no longer so convinced it was impossible to make money with movies, Charles Pathé wanted his company back.

Articles began to appear, to occur in the press, so many that they could surely be considered a well-organized campaign. Despite the fact that he'd been married to the same woman since 1909, despite the fact that he had two children, despite the fact that he made at least 60 major movies during the first half of the 1930s, Natan was now under steady attack: a Jew, an etranger, a pornographer, a pederast, perhaps even a foul violator of feathered French fowl, and yet with his grasping grip clutching such an important economic institution of la France. A swindler, an embezzler? Surely. How could he not be?

The anti-Semitism of France in the 1930s is only so little remembered because France's next-door-neighbor was so successfully raising the standard, and because . . . well, there are other reasons. After years of steady slander and innuendo, of gossip, and rumors in the press, all meant to destroy Natan's unpatriotic grasp on the proud nation's most famous film company, in 1936, at the height of the Depression, the Tribunal de Commerce succeeded in appointing a receiver who proceeded to declare Pathé-Natan bankrupt. Bernard Natan continued to produce films; his firm continued to operate at a profit. But by 1938, just after the Kristallnacht in Germany, Natan was arrested, and indicted, accused of fraud, of bilking investors, of negligent management and of hiding his heritage by changing his name.

Natan was imprisoned in 1939, and indicted yet again in 1941. This time he got convicted. Released in September, 1941, the Vichy Government efficiently arranged to have him placed on what is said to have been the very first train from France to Auschwitz. He was not seen again. Pathé (sans Natan) carried on with proper French management into the 1980s, based on the armatures Natan had created; the theater chain he established lives on today.

If you should visit France's national film school, le Femis on rue Francouer, in the 18th, occupying the buildings where once Bernard Natan first established his film lab, you will enter the gates under a striking antique arch that still says, so quaintly, "Pathé Cinema" with the fabled rooster emblazoned. On a sunny day, you will see France's elite young film students smoking underneath solemn marble plaques with the names of those who died defending La Belle France against the Nazis. They are the cream of their generation, these film students. As ever in France, to succeed, to advance, to prevail, you must absolutely attend the proper school; all politicians, left, right and center, attend the same school, and all up-ranking military officers uniformly attend another. And le Femis is where the future of film in France is being instructed. There is, of course, no mention of Bernard Natan on those memorial plaques. In fact, to the degree that he is remembered at all — and he isn't, not much — he is noted in French film history as a swindler, an embezzler, and as a dirty duck-fucking pornographer. There is reason to believe he never did any such things, and much proof that he didn't, but he never got a chance to tell his tale. Putain. Fuck. Fuck a duck.

(Note: In 1999, Gilles Willem published an article, "The Origins of Pathé-Natan" in Screening The Past, Issue 8, and it was translated by Annabelle de Croÿ. I'm indebted to this remarkable effort at re-examining the restructuring of Pathé, Natan's innovations, and the financial and judicial machinations of that time. Without it, I would have joined in understanding Bernard Natan — his name; the name he chose for himself — as he has been understood in all the years since he was escorted out of France.)

Escoffier, Stanley & Me (& Danny, Tiger of the Balkans)

My cooking has direct lineage to Escoffier. I wish I could say that was true from my initial professional experience in the kitchen, but that would be fudging the facts around a bit. And Stanley's Cafe — the sign outside still said Swede's Cafe but now Stanley owned it, and he'd had the the front window repainted to say so; besides, the neon on the sign only lit up on one side, and even then it didn't say Swede's Cafe, because only the part that said Swede's still lit up — anyway, Stanley's Cafe, a wino diner directly across from the post office next door to the Westward Ho in downtown Phoenix, Arizona in 1974 was not my direct connection to Escoffier. Unless, perhaps — and while I can't prove this, I guess I also can't prove it wasn't maybe possibly so — there was a Escoffier hook-up through Danny, the regular cook. Danny whose professional name had been "Danny, the Tiger of the Balkans."

Danny Unpronounceablelastname (and thus, in the Arizona of 1974, known forever and ever as merely "Danny") had been an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler representing Yugoslavia. He was five and a half feet tall, and four and a half feet wide, and made up of mainly muscle, and neckbone.. He didn't speak much English, just enough. The first actual words he ever spoke to me — he had grunted at me previously a lot; actually, a whole lot, actually, as in "Get out of my way" or "Go home" — were when Stanley appointed me the new night cook since Danny wanted the last couple hours before downtown Phoenix deflated like over-used condom, and since I was always hanging around drinking free Sprite while waiting for my girlfriend the waitress to get off work because we only had the one car. (Imagine, Americans, Arizonans, Phoenicians — only just one single car! What were we thinking? Gas cost somewhere between 19 cents and 29 cents and 36 cents; gas stations pretty much didn't need any of the other numbers — and it was our duty and responsibility to burn it up — but anyway, the first actual ungrunted Move Your Boots words Danny ever spoke to me was when Stanley took me back into the kitchen to make formal introductions.
"Danny, this is Bart. He's going to take that last shift."
I'm guessing that Stanley would have liked it if we'd shook hands and all, but it would have probably put me out of commission. So I kind of nodded and smiled and grinned and tried not to wet my pants and all.
Danny, perhaps the most exotic chef in all of downtown Phoenix at that stage, stayed focused on the cuisine. He gave me my very first professional cooking lesson. It's one that rings in my ears, that resonates in my spirit, that inspires my soul, that clenches my testicles to this very day. "Don't Touch The Soup." Then he turned his back on me.