français three ways


SUNDAY: At any given time, my ease with French varies wildly, with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I’m faltering and incomprehensible, other times I’m confident and zippy. During my weekly Skype conversation with Philippe on Sunday, I was in my better mode, which I took as an encouraging sign (even though historically it has not indicated anything like linear progress).

MONDAY: The next day, I went to my weekly French Meetup and again, found myself able to warm up quickly and understand and speak a lot. I had what is probably my most high level, esoteric and interesting French conversation ever, with a neuroscientist from Nancy (in northeastern France), who is in New York to do a post-doc focusing on memory. I told him, fully in French, about an experimental film I had seen at the Whitney Biennial and then again at MOMA* that is actually more like a performance. The film is about a man who, as a result of a botched operation to relieve his epilepsy, lost all his long-term memory and can only remember the last 20 seconds of his life. Kerry Tribe specially designed the documentary to be screened through two side by side projectors. One reel of film runs on a loop between the two projectors so that the first screen shows the “present” moment in the film and the second screen shows the moment in the film 20 seconds prior. It’s such a creative and impactful way to tell the man’s story and beyond that, to convey a little bit of what it was like to live in his head.

The neuroscientist knew exactly who I was talking about even though I couldn’t remember his name (speaking of bad memory). He is Henry Molaison and apparently he is the most studied patient in the history of neuroscience.

He then told me, again fully in French, a rather tragic tale about another person whose brain injury was the first proof that damage to the frontal lobe can affect personality. Phineas Gage was a kind and upstanding guy until a freak accident blasted a piece of iron through his skull. He miraculously lived and at first seemed to make a full mental recovery, but then he started becoming a bit of a dick, to put it bluntly. His wife left him, he lost his job and he died penniless and alone. A sad story for Phineas, but a happy one for me because I actually understood it.

TUESDAY: I went to see Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women” at the French Institute. It was the last of their CineSalon series, “The Art of Sex and Seduction,” and I liked it a lot…. though I tried to go “off-subtitle” and failed miserably. I gave up averting my eyes from the titles at about twenty minutes in and allowed myself to just enjoy the film without treating it as a learning exercise, but it was a little dejecting after two days of thinking I was actually getting somewhere.

Oh well, if it’s got to be this way I hope it’s at least two steps forward, one step back instead of the other way around.

*(where it is in the permanent collection – go see it!)

[Photo: Lisa T.]