French in Action
June 5, 2014 | by Ted Scheinman
Mourning Pierre Capretz.
I carry vivid memories of a boy named Robert, who insisted on wearing his horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere—to Chartres, to La Closerie des Lilas, to that seedy little rental-car hub on the Boulevard Périphérique, even (sacré bleu!) under a white blazer. What tone-deaf Ivy League foolishness, I remember thinking. The corollary bummer was that Robert wasn’t a caricature of the average American exchange student; he was more or less the ideal version thereof. He bopped through France, always encountering the lovely Mireille, who seemed to appear—without explanation or apology, and often without a bra—around the country’s every corner. And most important, he took every conceivable opportunity to improve his French. Robert was in Paris not to chase tail but to learn the language, to become a citoyen du monde. And yet he insisted on wearing that horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere …
Such were my first high school impressions, in 1999 and 2000, of the video pedagogy of French in Action, the language course cum TV series that taught me (and millions of other Americans) the rudiments of the Francophone lifestyle.
French’s wild-haired emcee, Pierre Capretz, died earlier this year, in Aix-en-Provence, at eighty-nine. Capretz’s eyes always brimmed with mischievous possibility. He struck me as Henry Kissinger’s magnanimous French cousin, a man whom the world had weathered in the best possible way, imbuing him with wisdom and a philosophical cheer without which no one who teaches French in America can stay sane.
As I learned more about Capretz, I started to get the jokes, which, of course, included the Yale T-shirt that Robert seemed never to wash. My teacher-guru, Madame Demaray—a sanitization of de marais, “from the swamp”—had helped Capretz beta-test the program at Hotchkiss, a very swish prep school that had taken me in; it wasn’t terribly far from Yale, for which Hotchkiss’s founders hoped to groom their young men and eventually (thank God) their young women. Relations between the two schools were still cozy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Mme. Demaray worked closely with Capretz as he developed his legendary regimen for the oral and aural teaching of French, imparting knowledge through a long-form video narrative that moved with the rhythms of a mystery novel. My teacher, with whom I was in half in love as one is with a glamorous great-aunt, told me in private about the million-plus dollars Capretz had gambled in making French in Action: about securing funding from the CPB and from WGBH in 1985, about the multiple heart attacks he suffered during the scripting, filming, and editing of part two. I saw my hispanoparlantes classmates toting Destinos and realized that the workbook/video/language-lab triad owed its current pedagogical vogue to Capretz, who believed, correctly, that the musical tools of language might succeed where 501 French Verbs had failed.
Capretz began his teaching career in 1949 in Florida, among the dead languages, and took his first job at Yale seven years later. His knowledge of Latin—in the same period when Derrida was commenting extensively on ancient texts—helps illuminate the tradition that he revived in French in Action. Until World War I, in the fancier schools, Latin was taught as something spoken and speakable, best accessed (especially in the realm of poetry) via tongue and ear. As a pioneer in multimedia learning, Capretz was also the preservationist of a much older pedagogical tradition, one that works remarkably well whether the language in question is alive or convalescing. Capretz’s fifty-two half-hour videos are camp in the best possible way, and deeply engaging. Professor Barry Lydgate, a Capretz friend and collaborator, notes the prescient democratic element in French in Action: it was “a giant Internet course, except it came out before the Internet,” he told the Yale Daily News, which also notes that French in Action remains “one of the top ten highest royalty revenue-generating licenses at Yale.”
In high school, after my sophomore teacher substituted Georges Simenon for Capretz and Commissaire Maigret for the young Robert, friends and I found the remaining tapes and finished the narrative in what would now be called binge-watching. Is “the man in black” good, or evil? Will Mireille fall for the Swede with the impressive quadriceps? Will she and Robert ever stop talking about Hemingway? All is answered in the final episodes, which present several very complicated verb constructions, including the dreaded passé simple, that I learned in spite of myself. Mystère et boules de gomme, as Capretz liked to intone: in loose translation, “all is riddles and gumballs.” The playfulness and wisdom of this idiom would be a fitting epitaph—a Capretzian wink to the millions he has welcomed to the monde francophone.
Ted Scheinman is a culture reporter based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for Slate, the Oxford American Quarterly, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. His first book of nonfiction will appear via Faber later this year. Follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Scheinman.