talent vs. icon

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I had to take the metro today, something I don’t like to do on a normal day to day basis since this can translate into smelling other people, and being un unwilling participant in group sex. However, the metro is also one of the things, like trains and planes, that gives you an opportunity to buy a really shit magazine and do a little self indulgent wallowing in the dregs of pop culture. And it sometimes gives space to a little unexpected reflection. So, let’s start with the beginning, me buying my So Foot magazine (hip football rag).

Aside: yes, I am one of those girls, the ones who actually really like sports: things like cycling, tennis, swimming, american football, basketball, rugby, F1, football and, of course, hockey. I buy Equipe on a semi-regular basis, and Velo Mag from time to time. I read stats on hockey from overseas, mourn the decline of Patrick Roy, worship Joe Sakic, and the one thing I desperately miss from Canadian television, besides Gord Martineau’s pancake makeup, is Don Cherry’s Grapevine. The only sport I don’t really follow, out of principle, is baseball.

And it was in my So Foot magazine that I saw an image of Eric Cantona, old Manchester United football star, fresh from his new film. He was sporting a mighty rough looking beard…not so far from Kris Kristofferson’s shaggy days. Gone was the sharp cut, gone was the bones and brooding angry lips…everything hidden under shag. And weirdly, he kind of looked like a fatguy who had lost weight.

You know Cantona, of course. Sometime in 1995, the dude got suspended 9 months for high-kicking a fan during a game. Dacnar, who followed Cantona’s career a little bit more studiously (c’mon…football doesn’t exist in N.America), told me that he was always trying to be poetic and intelligent during the interviews- always talking with depth about pseudo-politics, while explaining his value of intelligence in one’s psychological self-evaluation, and his budding talent for painting. The high kick should have ruined his career. Instead, it blew up his head. The guy got a role in a film and now he’s an actor.

But that’s kind of the appeal of guy like Cantona. He looks like a thug, he acts like a thug, but he’s desperately trying to show everyone that he has a soul. Kind of the same deal as Keanu Reeves. I mean, we know Keanu is just a very pretty face, but he does this backwards somersault and suddenly, by trying really really honestly and faithfully to be a great artist, and failing every instant, he suddenly becomes this emblem, this icon, which in a way supercedes any real pretention of talent. Eric Cantona is blood brothers with Reeves in some strange way. Next thing you know, the ole’ Cant is going to get it in his blood to do a football version of Moliere, or a Jackass adaptation of Bertoldt Brecht, and his overly cartoon-thug performance will only heap tons of praise bringing a sense of “the street.”

And then, I flipped the page, and my goodness gracious, what was waiting for me there! It was a picture of Cantona in his new film. He was enormous…like rippling layers of fat oozing off his frame…bigger than Brando every got! Think Chris Farley at the height of his powers. And next to that, a picture of the same Cantona, brooding his usual look into the camera. Except, with his fat guy face, he now just looked like he was pissed off that you tried asked him for an interview while his cheeks were full.

You know we live in an age where there’s lots of special effects in film. Like, look at that film, the Klumps, with Eddie Murphy where he plays a whole family of fat people. That’s all makeup and special effects…or like, the friggin’ lord of the rings…as if that guy is really a midget. He didn’t look like a midget in that Time Portal series. So, why is Cantona really getting fat? Why didn’t he just bluescreen himself and get some dude in a chair to render him into blubberkins?

It’s because he’s a big fan of de Niro. Besides being a massive adulator of Maradona, Eric Cantona believes that Robert de Niro is one of the world’s greatest living actors because he got fat for Raging Bull. And so de Niro became an actor by getting fat, why not the same for Eric? Like, what about Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones…why doesn’t he quote her? Why de Niro now, when he hasn’t made a good film in the last 20 years and he’s played the same role for the last 30?

And what the hell is up with that, like getting fat makes you a better actor? I thought it just made you bigger. Maybe people are so impressed that you’d ridicule yourself for your career…(though Renee does look very cuddly in her padded self), or maybe they think that you’re so scared to show how much you can’t act that you start hiding in your own skin…who knows. All I know is that Brando set a really bad example to the children of America by eating all those cream puffs and drinking so much Coke in between takes.

Aside: is it any less or more scary that the current American obsession with physical perfection involves a scalpel and plastic implants, instead of mating complementary genes like the Nazis? Is it any less sinister to claim superiority based on displayed buying power than genes…and aren’t they becoming the same thing in this day and age where half the people who are celebrities are daughters and sons of older generation celebrities?

Anyways, so Cantona puts on a few pounds, believes himself to be doing a short nod to de Niro’s Raging Bull, and gets interviewed on being an artist. And that’s the fucking hitch…he believes he is an artist. He speaks with pride about his old passion, painting (the guy did a couple of canvases, with pink flowers), and explains what real intelligence is. And here’s the catch…I sat there, on the subway, and ate the whole thing up, like a giant kielbassa, double spicy mustard.

As the train came closer to my stop, a busker got on. The windows were down so he all but drowned out in between stops. My back was to him, but he had a violin and a portable pre-recorded bass guitar backup. If you’re from any city, you know this scene, and if you know Paris, you know how this place is overpopulated with Gypsy musicians, riding the subways with their sad accordions and violins. Normally, the moment I catch on the opening strains of La Vie en Rose I know to keep from making eye contact.

So, what happened? Just as I was finishing up the Cantona, he started to play. He played and played and played, and I started to pay attention. The violin was marvelous, straining, whirling, diving and sometimes slowing in complaint. The technique was unhurried, no unnecessary displays of wizardry. Just a very beautiful, very emotional performance. It couldn’t help to go on against that kind of sound, when something reminds you of something you can’t remember where and how, but like a finger dark against your back late at night.

He played three songs, each going on for about 3 minutes. We crossed three arrondissments, and still he didn’t come trawling for the coins. He just kept playing, slowly, those very lovely strange gypsy songs, nothing I’d heard before. And then, just before my stop arrived, he came by. I didn’t look up, just saw the plastic cup and put my money in. I never give money away to buskers, or beggars.

And then it hit me. I had no problem paying my 4 Eu for a silly magazine that made me laugh, that was full of funny junk, things I can read in the bathroom and comfortably package away for a funny story for friends, but why do I never pay money for people who are making music for me? Why could I spend 5Eu to buy a pack of cigarettes, something that kills me, while I think twice about giving something to someone making music? Isn’t music one of the most direct pleasures of life, an art immeasurable in concrete sense, and should I not have the most infinite respect for those who would attempt to gain their life in such means? Is my love for an icon, for the imagined worth of something, the abstract important?

Yes, most definitely. The abstract is my god, and my lord, the only religion I know is what I can morph into meaning for myself, no matter how irrational or unplaceable, or how many layers of reference I need to bring it into access. But, somewhere along the way, the thing must be said. There is talent, and it’s palpable, and it’s real, and you don’t need a highly developed sense of culture to get it. True beauty is direct to the sensible.