Monday, May 14, 2007

The winner is... a loser

The dictionary informs me that one of my favorite French adjectives, ringard, came into existence at about the same time I first arrived in France, at the beginning of the 1960s. Besides, its origin is apparently unknown. For the moment, I can't think of its exact equivalent in English, but I'll give you an idea of what it means in French, and maybe somebody might be able to suggest an appropriate English adjective. At a first approximation, it means old-fashioned, obsolete, anachronistic or kitsch. But it's a derogatory term, so its meaning is somewhat similar to the adjectives crude, tacky or trashy.

Let me give you a local example. In the village of Pont-en-Royans, the mayor decided to transform some old buildings alongside the Bourne into a museum devoted to the theme of water. He called upon a graphic artist to produce a poster for the museum. Since there are several multimedia exhibits, the artist thought it would be a good idea to combine the notions of water and electronic display screens. And this is the result:

Now, every time I drive past one of these billboards (which are scattered all around the region), the adjective ringard pops instantly into my mind. The mediocre creative thinking of the design artist reminds me of an anecdote back in a Paris software laboratory where I used to work. It was packed with computers, on every desk, in every room. An Algerian cleaning woman would turn up towards the end of the afternoon, when most of us were still staring at our computer screens. When she needed to dust a computer screen that was being used, the lady would apologize for disturbing the engineer: "Excuse me for a moment or two while I clean your TV." We were amused by the fact that she must have imagined that we had fantastic jobs. We were being paid to sit there all day and watch TV. Well, to my mind, the guy who created the poster for the museum at Pont-en-Royans was a bit like our cleaning lady. To represent visually the concept of the multimedia exhibits, he got hold of an archaic TV set and took a photo of it floating in a pool of water. Then he added fishes and the head of a female swimmer. Happily, the TV set is obviously so ancient that nobody would be silly enough to turn it on, and electrocute the underwater observer.

The reason I'm particularly interested in the adjective ringard is that I wanted to say a few words about the amazingly tacky and kitsch Eurovision song contest that takes place annually here in Europe. It's moving from atrociously bad to worse, but there are millions of TV viewers who love it. This year, France succeeded in achieving exactly the same position as last year: third-last in a field of two dozen competing countries. The French group was named Fatals Picards, and it was meant to be terribly amusing. This is what they looked like:

Their sound was worse than their appearance. Now, it would be unkind of me to suggest that this group was not elected in a valid manner to represent France. I don't doubt for a moment that there are sufficiently many musically-tasteless TV viewers in France to cast their votes for such a group. But the bush telegraph tells me that this group might have got a little help from friends who are financial administrators in the French TV world. You see, the winner of Eurovision becomes automatically a loser, because the number 1 country has to host the following contest, and this is an expensive bore, to say the least. The situation might be summed up in words often applied to great sporting events such as the Olympic Games. The important thing is participating, not necessarily winning. For France, winning Eurovision would be a costly catastrophe.

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