Saturday, April 27, 2013

Magical Mystery Tour

The route....
You don't need to be a Romantic to be drawn into magic of the French South West, but driving through it may convert you into one.  In the space of an hour you can pass from picturesque villages nestled among sprawling vineyards to sublime mountain peaks, crowned by decaying castles, the silent sentinels of a bygone era.  In 2011 alone, France received nearly 80 million tourists.  Take a trip through the South West and it's easy to see why.  Whereas most tourists head directly to Paris, for good reason, one could easily skip the City of Lights altogether and spend weeks exploring the Aude and Languedoc-Roussillon and not have "missed out" on a great French vacation.  From hiking to mountaineering, canyoning to mountain biking, the region has you covered.  History buffs will be thoroughly satiated.  Amateur sleuths will find mysteries galore.  Foodies will have to be careful not to eat until they explode.  Thin mint, anyone?

I travelled through the Aude and Languedoc-Roussillon this week.  My itinerary was only a few hundred kilometers, but I saw enough to write a thick book....and what I saw was only a splinter from a massive oak.  Like I said, you can spend weeks exploring an area which can be crossed in a couple of hours.

My journey began at Saint Papoul.  I wanted to visit the Benedictine abbey (founded in the 8th c.) there in the hopes I might stumble across something which might increase my store of knowledge about Saint Sernin and the Saintes Puelles.  Papoul, or Papulus, was a priest who assisted Saint Saturninus (Sernin) in his efforts to evangelize the Gauls.  He's an obscure saint and there's not much that can be reliably said about him.  He was imprisoned for a while in Carcassonne and was killed during the Diocletian persecution, apparently beheaded.  He was also a cephalophore.  I can't find a detailed account, but apparently where he picked up his own severed head, a spring appeared.  The severed head is certainly a pre-Christian mytheme and recalls the rumours about Templar head worship.  The miraculous spring is also a familiar element.  Many of the Vierges Noires we have discussed are associated with sacred springs, as are many of the Virgin Martyrs; several among these latter were also cephalophores.  The cephalophore is not unique to France, but appears most frequently in French hagiography.  Sacred waters will reappear in this post.

In any event, we'd gotten a late start and only had a half an hour to explore the abbey; we decided to skip the visit and press on to out next destination, Saint-Hilaire.

Cloister of Saint Hilaire Abbey
Saint-Hilaire is about 50 minutes southeast of Saint-Papoul.  Like the abbey of Saint-Papoul, it was a Benedictine abbey founded in the 8th century as a dedication to Saint Sernin, a dedication changed in the 10th c. to honor Saint Hilaire (Hilarius), a fifth-century Pope.  The saint himself holds little interest to my researches, but the abbey is the site of Saint Sernin's tomb.  His sarcophagus is an exquisite Romanesque masterpiece and is carved to recount the legend of his martyrdom.  Thus it also features one of the very few depictions of the Saintes Puelles.  But France pretty much shuts down between 12 and 2, so again, I missed out.  I was able to enter the cloister, a tranquil place with a calming fountain at the center of the courtyard, but that was it.  The cloister is much like that of abbey of Saint Peter in Moissac (founded in the 7th c.) and that of the Dominican convent known as les Jacobins in Toulouse (early 14th c.), demonstrating a remarkable consistency in French monastic architecture.  A shame we missed out, but it was a fine day and a pleasant place to have lunch, a good way to ease into a long day of sightseeing.

Notre Dame de Marceille
Our next destination was Rennes-le-Chateau (RLC).  We had to pass through Limoux, a place I visited last year in order to see its famous Carnaval.  A chapel along the road caught my eye and so we popped in for a brief visit.  Lo and behold, my spider senses started tingling and indeed, the basilica is dedicated to Notre Dame de Marceille, a Vierge Noire I hadn't realized was there.  Apparently, the site is very ancient, with Paleolithic and Gallo-Roman remnants.  A church is mentioned as early as 1011.  It remains an important pilgrimage destination and has all the classic elements of Black Virgin stories.

At one time, in the quite remote past, a ploughman who cultivated his field on the slope of Marcellan saw his ox stop, as if halted by an invisible obstacle. He pushed it in vain, to urge it on, but it stood stock-still and resisted every prodding. The ploughman, who was amazed at first, suddenly felt the only other thing he could do was to call to Heaven for help. Then, somehow inspired by this plea for divine assistance, he began to dig the ground where the ox had stopped, only to find that it contained a statue. It was that of a wooden Madonna, brown and dark, with a celestial smile on her face. With great respect, he took the statue to the door of his house, where everyone in his family rejoiced at the sight of it. But their joy was short-lived: the following morning, the Madonna had disappeared. The ploughman returned to his field, and found the image in the place where he had discovered it the day before. Again, he rejoiced and carried it home, but in vain. It returned once again to the place where he had found it. He tried a third time, but to no avail. The statue returned to its hole in the ground.


Compare this story to that of Notre Dame d'Alet; note also that in the vicinity of this basilica there is a village named Alet-les-Bains.....

The basilica is also built over the site of a Gallo-Roman well and a miraculous fountain reputed to cure blindness is located on the site.  This Virgin also appeals to newlyweds who leave their bridal veils to ensure a happy marriage.  It would be redundant to make a list of all the Vierges Noires whose legend involves the strange behavior of cattle, a miraculous insistence of where to be worshipped and the special place she holds in the heart of women seeking aid in matrimony and maternity.  For the general tourist, it's also an amazing basilica, beautifully appointed and covered from floor to ceiling with elaborate frescoes.  Score!  The place was officially closed but the door was unlocked, so I slipped in for some photos.  I later learned that in 2007, while the place was being renovated, someone snuck in and decapitated the statue and spirited the head away, along with Her mantle!  Nothing else was stolen.  Given it's proximity to RLC, I wonder if this was a symbolic act and can't help but recall the cephalophore mytheme of nearby Saint Papoul and the head wound of Saint Sernin.  The current statue, then, like so many others, is a replacement.

Baptismal font, Rennes-le-Chateau
RLC. I won't go into the history associated with this place, but for fans of the esoteric, the town is legendary.  The first book about RLC appeared in 1967 (L'Or de Rennes by Gérard de Sède), inspiring a long series of books speculating about the town and its famous church.  Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code both owe their material to de Sède.  Countless books have appeared on the subject and the mysterious Priory of Sion.  It's a vast and complex story the center of which involves hidden treasures and the idea that the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene continues to this day.  Gérard de Sède was involved in both surrealist and Oulipo groups and I think his work should be approached with this in mind.  De Sède's son Arnaud said in a 2005 interview that his father and Pierre Plantard invented the legend from whole cloth and created the documents "proving" the existence of the Priory of Sion.  It's a fascinating hoax, so well-constructed that despite Arnaud de Sède's statements and the rather extensive debunking, people still believe it's true.  The sheer number of books and websites devoted to the subject boggles the mind.  People believe what they want to believe.  It would be a great Ph.D. thesis to analyze how disinformation works in a a non-propaganda context, as fact and fantasy are mixed to create a viable and enduring story.  There are so many odd coincidences, everything begins to link up and "possible" become "probable" until so much stuff piles up that the "where there's smoke there's fire" mechanism kicks in and fabulism becomes accepted as history.  There are a lot of gold ingots found among the turds, however, and one can read these books with a critical eye and still glean some important insights into the region, like good literature is often more useful than poor history.

Next stop, Rennes-les-Bains.  This has been a spot for thermal cures for literally thousands of years.  The healing properties of its waters is almost certainly connected to the legends surrounding religious sites.  Whereas the claims that a spring can cure blindness (perhaps a metaphorical cure à la Amazing Grace:  "Was blind but now I see") are dubious, the healing benefits of thermal springs are real.  Thermal cures can be prescribed by doctors and are subsidized in part by the French health care system.  We stopped for an hour or so to soak in the warm waters collected in two basins by the side of the Sals River.  A lovely spot that, like every other place in the vicinity of RLC, has been brought under the umbrella of its mysteries.  Indeed RLB's former parish priest Abbé Henri Boudet, contemporary of RLC's Bérenger Saunière, wrote La vraie langue celtique et le cromleck de Rennes-les-Bains (1886), in which he argued that that all languages derived from English!  An earlier book from RLB (1832) by Auguste de Labouïsse-Rochefort also recounts a legend about the Devil's treasure.  Clearly, the roots of the hidden treasure story lie farther back in time than de Sède.

Just to tighten the circle a little further, there is a plaque at  the Marceille basilica honoring Boudet!  but then again, he was born, lived and died very close to all of these places....

Our next goal was to see the Gorges de Galamus.  On the way we passed through a wide, green valley with a solitary mountain at the far end.  Some memory stirred in me.  When we passed through the town of Bugarach, something clicked.  I'd read about this place in the NYT.  Apparently in the 60's this mountain, the Pech de Bugarach, became a favored destination of French hippies, a powerful place along the lines of Sedona or Taos in the American South West.  In 2012 things came to a head, many New Age types descended on the place, there were more visitors than normal and the rhythm only increased as the fateful day in December approached that would mark the end of the Mayan calendar....and the world.  Some believed aliens living inside would carry people away.  This is essentially a New Age version of the Rapture.  Curiously, the Nation of Islam also has some teachings about UFOs and mountains:

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad said these planes were used to set up mountains on the earth. The Qur'an says it like this: We have raised mountains on the earth lest it convulse with you. How do you raise a mountain, and what is the purpose of a mountain? Have you ever tried to balance a tire? You use weights to keep the tire balanced. That's how the earth is balanced, with mountain ranges. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad said that we have a type of bomb that, when it strikes the earth a drill on it is timed to go into the earth and explode at the height that you wish the mountain to be. If you wish to take the mountain up a mile [1.6 km], you time the drill to go a mile in and then explode. The bombs these planes have are timed to go one mile down and bring up a mountain one mile high, but it will destroy everything within a 50-square-mile [130 km²] radius. The white man writes in his above top secret memos of the UFOs. He sees them around his military installations like they are spying.

 Louis Farrakhan.  Source

Apparently, these UFOs will destroy America, but spare the Nation of Islam.  These UFOs all come from within one great Mother Plane, the spaceship of God, another take on the Rapture.  At Bugarach, a group of Gendarmes and firemen were called in to block access to the mountain due to fears of Heaven's Gate-like mass suicides. 

Pech de Bugarach; note the two aliens disguised as horses on the right
This was all a pleasant surprise.  It is a beautiful place and not devoid of a sense of mystery, something I felt before I even realized where I was.  Lonely mountains are often Holy Mountains, it's almost hard-wired into the brain.  A holy mountain in New Mexico called Chimayo, for example, receives over 300,000 pilgrims each year and the sanctuary there is said to be built where a hot spring once flowed, revered by Tewa Indians for....its healing powers.  The Pech de Bugarach was considered holy long before the hippies took it up for the very same reason as the Tewa.

Hermitage of Saint Anthony
The road through the Galamus gorge is perhaps the wildest road I've driven, cut straight into the rock, a sheer drop off one one side, a sheer cliff on the other.  It's not as hairy as it sounds, but it's certainly impressive.  Near one end of the road there is a hermitage built into the cliff.  This hermitage was built in 1782 following a miraculous intervention by Saint Anthony to save a nearby village from the ravages of "sweating sickness."  It's a beautiful place and a guy actually rents it from the town of Saint Paul de Fenouillet.  I asked him about the recent events at the Pech de Bugarach.  According to him, there were lots of journalists and policemen, but not the multitude of New Agers depicted in the media.  Perhaps his perception the events were not the same as those of the journalists.  Perhaps the journalist exaggerated it all for a good story.  I'd first read about in the New York Times, so who can say?

Sculpture group
I was struck by a prominent image of Saint Anthony at Rennes-le-Chateau, so this correspondence was especially meaningful in the context, especially given that there is grotto on the site dedicated to Mary Magdalene.  There's also a crucifixion sculpture which includes a blindfolded woman gazing into a hand mirror.  I've discussed the hand mirror before, as a woman reflecting the Divine light of reason onto an allegorical scene of Liberty.  It's also used to represent Venus, who I've also discussed in a previous post.  A blindfolded woman is often used to represent Justice.  But the two elements together is very curious and I wasn't certain what it represents until I asked around to some friends.  I'll come back to her.

This grotto also houses a spring at which a reproduction of Saint Bernadette's vision of the Virgin Mary.  Healing waters, yet again....

Chapel dedicated to the Saintes Puelles
From Galamus we pressed on to Tautavel in the hopes that I could get into the chapel dedicated to the Saintes Puelles.  It was too late to get the key the day I arrived and the following day also proved fruitless, as the woman with the key was occupied at the parish church for a funeral.  As I drank my coffee I heard the death knell and laughed at my own selfishness.  Too bad this funeral cock-blocked me from seeing the Puelles, I'd thought.  Oh yeah, that and someone's family was grieving!  So basically, no Puelles.  But Tautavel is an impossibly charming village, with a lovely space to camp by the river, abundant vineyards with wine of high repute and a museum dedicated to prehistory.  Some of Europe's oldest prehistoric artifacts were found here and the 450,000 year old Tautavel Man, perhaps a subspecies of H. erectus, inhabited the area.  Again, one is struck by the long history of human presence in the whole region, which adds a sense of wonder to the presence of healing waters and springs, most certainly the reason why people settled in these spots to begin with.  The life-giving waters took on a spiritual dimension over time, which seems only natural and for me anyway, adds a positive dimension to Catholic veneration.  Which is exactly why some Protestant groups vilify Catholicism as being too pagan and thus dilutes if not negates Christian exceptionalism.  My own view is that this exceptionalism is born of insecurity.  If so much of the Christian story can be found in classical and pagan prototypes, the belief in an exclusive path to salvation is threatened, which is simply bad for business.  Jewish precedent is okay, but God forbid if Christianity takes something from legends of Attis, Dionysus, Horus, Isis, Mithra...

Day two of my voyage was more abbreviated.  We left Tautavel towards Perillos, which has only come to my attention sometime in the past few years.  Perillos is an abandoned town now part of the municipality of Opoul.  Perillos is a bit of blank to me, but some believe that it is an element of the RLC mysteries, or rather, that the RLC mystery is actually part of the Perillos mystery.  Is the tomb of Christ located there?  What is its connection to the Apocalypse (shades of Bugarach).  Dig this:

The "secret" of Perillos really isn't so much a secret. The locals near Opoul-Perillos, the "old guys", still remember... they have stories of "the tomb of God", a site they were told by their elders not to go to and play. There are locals who observe bizarre events in and around Perillos, but keep quiet. Our organisation is almost like a "confessional", whereby these people can finally say, in all anonymity, what they see and know, and we often don't even shrug our shoulders when they tell what they know their wives or husbands would claim as "idiotic". This includes seeing apparitions of God, straight out of the Old Testament. Inverted rainbows.


Chateau de Perillos
The way I went in is along a long and empty canyon.  There is definitely a mysterious feeling as one approaches the place, but then again, knowing what I know, this could easily be chalked up to a Romantic imagination.  It has even been connected to Notre Dame de Marceille.  It all links up because well, they are linked.  Perillos is only a few minutes from Tautavel, and Galamus, and Limoux.  Find the connections, run with it, speculate a bit, write a colorful account....good for tourism, good for making money on the flourishing trade in esoterica of all sorts.  That said, Perillos is worth looking into and the Societé Perillos has a good website that I've consulted more than once during the course of this post to verify my impressions of what I'd seen.  A lot of the information seems deliberately cryptic, but the Societé itself has mentioned they want to discourage the kind of treasure hunters who dug up the area around RLC looking for buried treasure.

This page sums up the Perillos "mystery"pretty well:

Apparently in 1995, one André Douzet found a model, allegedly made by or made for the priest Bérenger Saunière, of the areas associated with the passion of Christ, including the location of the tomb of Jesus and his uncle Joseph.  Thing is, it didn't match Jerusalem.  Douzet then recognized one of the features as a rock formation near Perillos.  The Seigneurs of Perillos were an illustrious family among whose number was once counted the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta.  Our man Abbé Henri Boudet, contemporary of RLC's Bérenger Saunière, once directed the parish.  Saunière himself was known to have visited the area to have a look at local families' archives.  Douzet also came across a reference in local archives to a piece of land which prohibited anyone, including the Lords of Perillos, from collecting rocks, cutting wood or otherwise molesting it; it could not be sold, transferred or divided.  It was within the lands of the Lords, but they didn't own it, they merely guarded it.  Furthermore, cartographer Jacques Cassini, whose family made the first general maps of France, was known to have spent a year and a half there, yet his maps leave the site of the tombs blank.  Which means they either aren't there or he was looking for them and then kept it secret.  There are a lot of other details, but that's the general story.  Douzet claims to have found the tombs and some artifacts inside, yet in 2008 another researcher pronounced it was all a hoax.  Hoax or not, it is a lovely and wild spot and I loved it not for being the site of Jesus's tomb, but merely for the fact many believe it's true!

The rest of my journey was for the kids.  A human labyrinth in Trouillas, burro riding in Castelnou (another amazing village), a visit to the beach in Spain.  The last LoSian aspect of the trip was in Thuir, where there is yet another Vierge Noire, but alas!  This church too was closed.

Notre Dame de la Victoire
According to Ean Begg, Notre Dame de la Victoire is 50cm tall and made of lead, which accounts for her dark hue.  She dates from the late 12th century.  Apparently four statues were made from the same mould, two of which went to Spanish Catalonia and two to the Massif Central; both regions have dense concentrations of Black Virgins.  This statue replaced an earlier one, mentioned in the 10th c.  Like Notre Dame de Sabart, She helped Charlemagne defeat the Saracens; in this case by providing his exhausted troops with water.  Charlemagne apparently brought an image of the Virgin to a dry river bed and thrust his sword into the earth and a spring gushed up from the spot, which sounds very sexual to these ears.  A sword is planted and the earth gets wet, thus sustaining and bringing life to his troops.  This sexual/birth motif may be why, like Notre Dame de la Daurade, she is a patroness of childbirth.  Pieces of her robe, or a birthing belt are placed on the bellyof a woman in labor.  If I understand correctly, her feast day, October 7th, predates the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto on the same day in 1571.  Like a lot of info from Begg, however, I'm careful about repeating that as fact.  For another example of a battle with Saracens which involves planting a phallic object in the ground, causing a spring to spurt out on the spot, see my discussion of St. Fris.

The conclusion of my voyage was a jaunt to the beach in Spain, then the long-ish drive home.  But there are any number of alternatives.  One could strike north for the arid beauty of the Corbières wine country, with a stop in Carcassonne on the road back to Toulouse.  The route between Perpignan and Andorra is magnificent, with two fortified cities I've yet to explore.  You get the picture.  I chose our route for it's convenience and it's mixture of history and pop-esoterica, sites never more than a half an hour or 45 minutes apart.  Drive a bit, explore a bit.  None of these places takes up too much time to explore.  I plan to return to Tautavel very soon, just camp and enjoy the river.  If I don't see the Saintes Puelles due to some reason or other, I'll only be able to conclude that there is a conspiracy of silence to keep me from seeing the chapel and exposing its secrets to the world!

But seriously, I do hope to explore Perillos a bit more, as there's talk in the air that it might be made off limits to protect it from treasure-seekers, even perhaps put under the control of the military!  This isn't as ominous as it sounds, as there is a large military base nearby which may in fact be contiguous with the abandoned town.

Bottom line is that if you want to travel in France, you've got something for everyone in this little itinerary, a logistically perfect little nugget.  I went to see many of the thing I've previously discussed on LoS, such as the sarcophagus of St. Sernin or the statue of the Saintes Puelles.  On that front it was something of a failure.  But I made a lot of little discoveries and connections to other areas of interest, all the while spending some good times with the kids, teaching them some proper camping skills and a little about history.  Cathars, UFOs, esoteric sects, what could be better?

I'm also going to look into this Boudet character.  His book is full of wordplay and puns.  Given that de Sède was involved in surrealist and Oulipo groups, this makes me wonder if de Sède had read this book and it influenced him to write his own book.  RLC research is rife with mystical toponymy, puns, double-entendre and decoding ciphers.  In 1991 a Flemish researcher decoded some of Boudet's book and was led to Limoux, more specifically the basilica of Notre Dame de Marceille, where he discovered secret vault by the river.  Some have speculated that an entire underground complex exists beyond a blocked-up tunnel from the vaults.  So that underground treasure people are looking for around RLC may just be slightly farther afield than thought.  If we think back to the legend of this particular Black Virgin, we recall that She was dug up from the ground.  Is it possible that this is the vault where She was found, and that the vault is the original chapel built to house Her?  Or, if it is indeed far older, could it have been a pagan temple or shrine and that the Virgin found there was in fact a pre-Christian idol?

Further inquiries in my library reveal that Saillens (Nos Vierges Noires) says the locals called her "our sibyl" and believes that to be the case, the pagan prototype being Cybele.  Cybele is a mother of the gods and is often associated wih Attis, whose myth has many features later ascribed to the birth, life and death of Jesus.  In Vierges Noires, Cassagnes-Brousset notes that a nearby (how near?) archaeological dig uncovered a figurine of Belisama, a Celtic goddess the Gallo-Romans identified with Minerva/Athena.  This goddess was both warrior and healer, associated among other things with lakes and rivers.

Marceille is an ancient place with Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze age articles found in the vicinity; a Gallo-Roman villa was located nearby.  Perhaps the vault was related to the villa, its location near the church coincidental, unless the basilica replaced a pre-Christian temple.  The current statue is a reproduction of the decapitated version dating back to the 11th c., yet the basilica was begun in the 14th.  Was the vault its original shrine?  Tradition holds that like so many other Vierges Noires, this wooden sculpture replaced an even older version.  As it turns out this theory is discussed in some detail by the Societé Perillos.  I urge you to read that essay, if only for this curious detail:  She was originally inscribed with the words "Do not look at me, because I became brown." according to a text entitled Hommage au Baron Podenas.

Became?  Very curious, but we must be cautious, for I can find the Hommage au Baron Podenas  referenced anywhere else....bear that in mind as you read what follows.

There seem to be some curious traditions about eyes of this statue, which are indeed quite large.  The imperative to "avert your eyes" made me think of the blindfolded figure at Galamus and another curious detail popped up: both figures are smiling....tradition even has it that "he who sees the statue [ND de Marceille] smiling at him, is certain to obtain the grace which he came to beseech.”  A pal suggests the blindfolded figure is Synagoga, a figure usually paired with Ecclesia  to represent the replacement of Judaism by Christianity; the Jews cannot "see" that Jesus was the Christ.

Confirmation is to be found at the site itself, I'd neglected to read the sign.  This sign states that the group depicts Ascension of Christ and is called Christ and Humanity.  The woman standing represents hope for salvation, whereas the seated woman is blind to this opportunity.  Thus my friend is right, she is essentially Synagoga and the other woman, Ecclesia.  My friend also points out this page with a picture of the group, but it appears to be in white marble; a caption says the photos were taken at an unused church some years ago but the sculpture is now at the hermitage.  So the red version we see is either a copy, or it has been painted.  This latter possibility seems odd to me, but is is possible  One would then wonder why such a dark, earth-red hue was chosen.

Perhaps any explicit reference to Synagoga has been removed due to some interpretations of the figures as essentially anti-Semitic, although recent scholarship is apparently more nuanced.

The ensemble was a gift of local sculptor G.A. Grouille, not an especially common name and not usual for this area.  The verb grouiller, which I came across looking for the name, means to be full of something or to swarm.  Thinking I might have a pseudonym, I looked for clues in the name, but it doesn't help much.  It is a real name though, I just can't seem to find any other references to the artist.

I also recall that there was a Sator Square carved into a stone in a chapel at the hermitage.  This kind of word square is pre-Christian and consists of a series of five words written on a grid.  Is is a palindromic acrostic.  Best thing is to follow the link and see it for yourself.  Needless to say, this kind of wordplay would have appealed to Boudet, or to de Sède.  Ostensibly it is Latin, but one of the words, "Arepo", may be Celtic in origin.  That would certainly have interested Boudet.  Could he have placed it there?  The possible translations that have been proposed include "The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels [a plough]" and "The sower holds the works and wheels by means of water."  This seems to relate to elements of the Marceille legend and the Sator Square is believed to have magical uses, including putting out fires, which just happens to be one of the properties of Notre dame de Marceille.

Leaving that question aside, I should also report that She was also stolen during the Revolution; the records of the case do imply a kind of conspiracy involving people who knew about, and used, the secret vaults.  Again, curious details.  Secret vaults, a theft, a later decapitation.  Little wonder she has excited so much interest.

There's certainly more to investigate here, but that may best be left for time and serendipity to work out.  My inquiries keep leading me to the same unique sources, which is a good enough reason to pause and look for other angles.

But for the moment, Daurade is tired out.  I'm sure I'll come across more in my further readings and travels that will lead me back to these speculations, but for now, I feel this is the post I was looking for, hopefully a return to productivity, if not form!

Friday, April 5, 2013

It's not just who YOU know, but who knows YOU: An interview with Dimitri Diatchenko

You may not know Dimitri Diatchenko by name, but if you watch TV and go to the cinema there's a good chance you've seen his work. At 6'2", with a powerful voice to match his build, he's hard to miss.  Dimitri has worked on dozens of productions including big Hollywood films such as G.I. Jane, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Chernobyl Diaries--as well as independent films such as Clubhouse, his most recent film, and Goiterboy, his first. His TV credits include Walker, Texas RangerCSI: MiamiFamily GuySons of AnarchyHow I Met Your Mother; and a brief stint on General Hospital.  Avid gamers will have heard him put his voice to good use in titles including Call of Duty: Black Ops I II, Ironman 2 and Wolfenstein.  He also has a string of national commercials under his belt.  Whew!  The man stays busy!

(See IMDb and Dimitri's personal website)

I met Dimitri at Stetson University, where he was studying classical guitar (he has four solo CDs to his credit), and I'm fortunate that Dimitri agreed to this interview, thoughtfully responding to my questions by email.  What emerges is an interesting story of how one man got into making pictures and makes a good living doing it.  Dimitri isn't one of these actors who spends most of his time waiting tables and doing fruitless auditions.  He is a full-time working actor--not a superstar by any means, but he's working on it.

Over time, Dimitri has managed to create a space for himself by playing "heavy" or villainous characters, often as a Russian--calling on his Ukrainian roots to perfect his dialects and his experience as a former heavyweight champion in Taekwondo to deliver credible ass-whippings.  He also has quite a few comedic roles on his résumé.  Multi-talented, professional and a nice guy--he's out there travelling the world getting international exposure yet still takes the time to respond to questions for an obscure blog.  Very cool indeed!

LoS:  You started out studying classical guitar. 20 years later you’re acting in Hollywood. Did you always want to act in addition to playing music, or is it something that came about later?

DD:  I always had a penchant for acting, but never did anything until Stetson University.  I had to take a non-music elective as part of my course requirement and I chose the two classes where the hottest girls in the school could be found….acting and dance. Then I took an on-camera acting class in Orlando at a talent agency who soon represented me. They sent me out on auditions for student films and locally produced shows and commercials.

LoS:  I know you’ve answered this question in other interviews, but how did you get your start – what was your first paid role?

DD:  My first paid role was as a featured extra on G.I. Jane, the Demi Moore/Ridley Scott film. I drove six hours that day for a 5 minute interview in Jacksonville. I got bumped up to a day player and then to utility stunts during the next few months of shooting which started in Florida and ended in Los Angeles. It worked out well because I was planning to move to LA anyway.

LoS:  At what point did you seriously think you could make a living as an actor and at which point did you get an agent?

DD:  When I moved to LA my main intention was to be a working actor and eventually an A-lister. I had a few interviews with agencies when I got to LA that were set up by some actors from G.I. Jane. They were very helpful to me and I was being represented within a few months after my move.

LoS:  Does your agent seek out all your roles for you, or do productions call you up to ask after you based on the strength of your previous work? This is a variation on part one of this question: Do you have to read for every role, or do you get offered parts without an audition?

DD: At this stage in my career I get offers sometimes, but most of my roles I get through the auditioning process.

LoS:  Hollywood has its mega-stars who get paid millions per picture or hundreds of thousands per episode, but I assume you’re part of what Bruce Campbell refers to as “working-class Hollywood”. You work regularly on popular shows, including How I Met Your Mother and Sons of Anarchy. This may be an impertinent question, but what kind of lifestyle does your career afford you?

DD:  Well my goal is to be one of those millionaire actors with my own production company and all the perks that come with that lifestyle. Right now I would consider myself a working-class actor. I live off of my acting work entirely. I've hit six figures a few times. I live pretty conservatively. It's feast and famine sometimes. LA is an expensive town to just live a normal life. I also put a lot of money back into my career needs. I have steadily increased my living standard every year for the past 6 years.

LoS:  In Chernobyl Diaries, I remarked to a friend that your character Yuri knows more than he’s letting on to his customers. Even though this isn’t ever made explicit, it can be inferred from some of Yuri’s expressions and statements. Is that an accurate reading, and if so, is that something that came from the director and the script, or did you bring that to the role?

DD:  For the sake of keeping the suspense in the film, I played Uri with a little mystery in his expressions, and tone and color. Brad Parker and Oren Peli liked what I was doing but we discussed every scene we shot as building the audience suspense.

LoS:  Do you create a back story to your characters, in your head or on paper, in order to enhance your performance, or do you work only from what’s on the script?

DD:  I spend quite a bit of time just thinking about the role I'm playing. A bit of a background story on them that either the script reveals or just my own take on the character. Keeping it as simple as possible, but layered.

LoS:  You mention in one interview about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that you spoke a little bit with Steven Spielberg about some ideas for your character you had that he then integrated into the film; do directors often confer in this way with their actors and/or are they usually receptive to suggestions? Do you ever improv lines without clearing it with the director first, or is that considered unprofessional?

DD:  Some directors, usually the ones who have acted, are very receptive to what their actors are thinking about their roles. Spielberg was great like that. Most of my lines in IJ4 were improvised….and in Russian. I will improv for a purpose if the scene we are shooting dictates. I like living in the moment. If it works, we move on, if not, we do it again.

LoS:  What would be your dream role….and cast?

DD:  The role I play in Company of Heroes was a dream role and the cast was pretty awesome too. I'm starring in a WWII action film with Tom Sizemore, Vinnie Jones, Jurgen Prochnow, Chad Collins and Melia Kreiling. My relatives did the same thing that Ivan, my character's name, did during WWII. I am Ukrainian from my dad's side of the family. Playing Ivan brought back memories of the stories I would hear from my dad, uncle, aunt and babushka. I had the coolest role in the film. The only way it could have been better is if I got the girl at the end of the film. That may still happen. I hear they want to do another one.

LoS:  Is there a role or kind of project you’d never accept?

DD:  That's a tough one. The only thing that comes to mind is the role of a pedophile. I can't see me EVER playing that. It's just too horrible an energy to live with as I'm preparing for the role. My mind just will not go there.

LoS:  You’re an accomplished martial artist, which can only be of benefit to an actor. Has that ever clinched a role for you?

DD:  I made it a point to not market myself as a martial arts guy when I arrived in LA.  I've had many a fight scene in roles that were more action oriented. I do all my own fight scenes. I think my acting skill is what propels me, but I'm a physically imposing guy at 6'2", 230lbs, solid. It probably helped that I was a highly skilled martial artist for my role in Walker, Texas Ranger. I had to fight with Chuck Norris in the episode. That was a great gig. One of the best experiences I've had so far.  Chuck influenced me as a kid to start Karate.

LoS:  You’re also a classically-trained musician; what skills cross over into acting? I know you’ve actually played for one of your roles; any chance we’ll see you play again on screen?

DD:  Music and the written word are closely related so closely in my mind that often when I read through a monologue, a group scene or an entire script, I digest the material as I would when learning and performing a piece of music. An example is if you take a monologue and break it up into sections as you would a Sonata. You have a theme, development of the theme, a second theme that is related to the first theme and it's development and then a recapitulation. An essay or a monologue breaks up into sections that can be realized in the same manner. Furthermore, your interpretation of the written or musical performance should be realized with your own life experiences. This is what makes the material YOURS and special.

LoS:  Is there anything you feel you'd like to add? Words of advice for budding young actors?

DD:  The thing that is most UNTAUGHT is the acting business. These days you have to have a social media presence to help boost your following. It's good and bad. The good is that I have a fan base overseas that I never would be able to communicate with, real time, had I been a generation earlier. The bad is that it is so ever-changing. You have to stay on top of everything.....e.g. personal website, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else is out there that the social media companies are coming out with. The ART of acting is only the very beginning of having a career as an actor. Creating your fanbase and creating your BRAND is the most important thing these days. It's not just who YOU know, but who knows YOU.


For a more complete view of Dimitri's work, check out the playlist of clips he's created from some of his roles, with a brief intro on how he got into the business: