By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 3019 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on February 11, 2000, grace of my father Edward Winer, who passed away this past December 7.
NEW YORK — One evening in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Thunder Over Mexico.” The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was objecting because he knew that this copy of the film, a much-truncated extract from over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the legendary Russian filmmaker’s plan for “Que Viva Mexico!,” his panoramic history of Mexican civilization.
Kirstein had sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as the three watched and commented upon 30 of these reels. In an article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in “By, With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader,” edited by Nicholas Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, “If anything should happen to ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein’s final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”
By early 1932, Eisenstein’s backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt — as Jenkins tells it — “to retain control of his film.” From the wreckage, some smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master’s intentions. This is what had broken Kirstein’s heart. He would have been heartened, then, to be in the audience at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous four-hour showing of raw “Que Viva Mexico!” footage, assembled 45 years ago by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer. (The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who with his wife had brought together the film’s original backers.)
I should pause here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me — i.e., the non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in the dance auxiliary identify with people like Serge Diaghilev, producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I’m a dancer but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only used the leading Cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he also started his own art magazine, “The World of Art,” just before the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein’s interest in visual art, and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein’s closeness to the promotion of the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium as well.
Last Saturday, I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous “Harlem snake dancer”). While there, I learned that Anthology would be showing the ‘Que Viva’ footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize Eisenstein’s intentions for the epic.
So I hied myself to Jonas Mekas’s treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn’t figure on was that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.
Much of the first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one — hey, I’ve been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement. (Confession: The film was also screened without a soundtrack, testing my ADHD-challenged concentration capability.) One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian men retrace Christ’s arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors within their ranks walking on their haunches; that’s right, hunched. The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm here. Like “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine created in America — there is also a story, with rites. And canon!
“Serenade” ends with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades and carried offstage. The prologue of “Que Viva Mexico!”, at least what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.
But the heart of what I saw last night –and the most dancey material — deals with bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.
First we are shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull; a bull gores a picador’s horse. The matadors (? I get the human sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles (these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other), which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them. Then we are treated to many takes of each of various aspects of the bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull’s eye perspective, as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull’s head, seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned younger man.
The most purely balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein “planned to give…special attention,” perhaps “for its resemblance to ballet.” One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side. He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal — who also dances. It’s total ballet. (Eisenstein’s plan was to have Dmitri Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this intense section.)
Indeed, in a very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer involved in dance, it’s Kirstein’s very catholicity of passionate pursuits that appeals to me. But I don’t think it’s too much of an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of the reasons Kirstein found “Que Viva Mexico!” “an absorbing experience” was Eisenstein’s capturing of how movement expresses culture. This same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet — for U.S. American culture to be expressed through movement as well.
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston
To read more about Jill Johnston and more Jill Johnston Letters, click here. Today’s publication made possible by Dance Insider Co-Lead Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance. To find out how you can sponsor the longest-running dance magazine on the Internet, please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at firstname.lastname@example.org .
“What then must we do?” This is Linda Hunt’s big line in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Hunt, you’ll remember, plays a diminutive cameraman named Billy Kwan, a role for which she won the Oscar. She, or he I should say, quotes the line, and its source — from Luke, chapter 3, verse 10 — near the beginning of the film while taking journalist Guy Hamilton, just off the plane from Australia, on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Billy has plans for Guy, played by Mel Gibson. Here is the pre-Passion, pre-Lethal Weapon, pre-Braveheart, pre-blockbuster-addicted and drunkenly arrested anti-Semite raving Gibson as a young darkly handsome leading man in an intimate romance, directed by Peter Weir and put through his paces by co-actor “Billy,” a spiritually and socially enlightened “dwarf” as he is sometimes identified. His very first lines are his own voice-over while sitting at his typewriter creating a file for our hero, through whom Billy will live: “June 25, 1965, Dossier #10, Hamilton, Guy, born 1936 under the sign of Capricorn, occupation journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service — Jakarta, first assignment as a foreign correspondent.” A revival of “Dangerously” in movie theaters country-wide would be appropriate right now. The political undertow, a steady pull powering the film beneath its fictional romance is the US/UK intervention in Indonesia to drive out the people-driven Communist movement, or PKI, depose President Sukarno who had been aligned with his people and install the dictator Suharto, making way of course for all manner of Western capitalist ventures.
As Guy/Mel gets off his plane and presents his papers you see on the wall behind him a huge sign: CRUSH U.S. AND BRITISH IMPERALISM. As the film ends, you see Jakarta in chaos, its military coup underway, and the beginnings of the great bloodbath, the famous massacre of many thousands of PKI or Communist party members, and the escape by air of our hero and other Westerners. When I saw the movie in 1983, I thought it was terrific. But I saw only Billy the narrator and prime mover, and the romance between Guy and Jill (Sigourney Weaver), and was mindlessly, incuriously aware of the political situation. It’s surely one of the few really convincing romantic relationships in movie annals. Looking at “Dangerously” now, I contemplate something new: of the couple, who am I? I started thinking about this while playing the video of Volume V of “Brideshead Revisited” over and over — the episode where Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons and Julia/Diana Quick fall in love on a stormy Atlantic crossing, New York to Southampton. The political background in “Brideshead” is class and Roman Catholicism. As women, we may find Julia’s position in life ideal. The daughter of a Lord, beautiful and elegant, she commands Charles’s deference in seeking her love. This is England on the high seas, and Charles, merely from the upper middle class, and an artist, knows his place. But do we want to be Julia? As a Roman Catholic, she must marry one, or else a non-Catholic willing to prostrate himself before the Church, by pretense and/or conversion, for her to feel saved from perdition. She doesn’t so much fall for Charles, as allow him to love her. And if we read her conflict well, we know the affair can’t last.
Americans will be much more captivated by the romance of Guy and Jill in “Dangerously,” especially after 9/11, when many people in the population, once politically stupid or oblivious, like myself, woke up to our government as a rogue nation. Like Julia in “Brideshead,” Jill has the power — she is established in Jakarta before Guy gets there, she too is beautiful, is English, and she has a mysterious job at the British Embassy. Billy the puppet-master, a role attributed to Sukarno, and one Billy proudly claims himself, is already a devoted friend of Jill’s or Jilly as he may call her affectionately; and “Jilly” adores him too. By suggestion, sorcery and manipulation, he unites Guy and Jill. He wants us to see them against the poverty and corruption in Jakarta, thus Indonesia at large. Their attraction, and the huge energy it generates, exposes the Western luxury of romance in the midst of the ruins of Western indifference and exploitation. It also capitalizes LOVE as a transcendent force overcoming the misery created by state policies, local and international. A build-up under Weir’s expert direction and attention to detail sucks us into the romantic vortex. The ground is laid first by giving Guy some status to make him a viable suitor. He arrives from Australia without any contacts in his new post. You see him on his first day rushing around vainly in the presidential palace microphone in hand ready to interview someone, anyone — the other journalists already so employed. Later that day our omnipotent all-seeing “dwarf” who knows everybody finds Guy disheartened in his office, and makes him a spectacular offer. He will set Guy up for an interview the very next day with the second most important man after Sukarno in Jakarta, the leader of the PKI or Communist party. In return, Guy enlists Billy as his exclusive cameraman. But without the love of the most beautiful available woman in this politically explosive and tropically sweltering claustrophobic town, Guy’s profile is not complete. “Every man,” Billy tells Guy tantalizingly after he has introduced him to Jill, “wants to get into bed with her in the first five minutes.” Her history in Jakarta includes an affair with a French journalist, now reassigned to Saigon. Jill herself is soon to leave and return to England, and so after a glittering afternoon spent with Guy wandering through tropical groves, connecting in hilarity under a drenching downpour, and spending time in Billy’s quarters of wall-covered photos where they realize he is their medium; and a long moment locked in an open-mouthed gaze signifying romantic recognition, she disappears into the Embassy, waving Guy off as he presses her to get together again, laughingly turning him down, saying she’s leaving soon and doesn’t want to complicate things. It is her power now, to bestow her love or not, that makes the film suspenseful and exciting. She doesn’t return his calls, and he has no access otherwise.
Guy in the meantime has been influenced by Billy, the film’s androgynous wonder, to write his stories with more feeling and compassion. We have to keep in mind their first moments walking together through Jakarta’s slums, when Billy quoted from Luke, “What then must we do?” She, or rather he, had told Guy, still in tie and shirt, with jacket in hand slung over shoulder, the underprivileged swarming all around them in a dark evening light, that Tolstoy asked this same question, and even wrote a book with that title. Tolstoy got so upset about the poverty he saw in Moscow that he went one night to the poorest section of the city and just gave away all his money. Billy tells Guy, “You could do that now; five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.” Guy predictably says it wouldn’t do any good, that it would just be a drop in the ashes. “Ah,” says Billy, “that was the same conclusion Tolstoy came to — but I disagree.” “Oh?” asks Guy, “What’s your solution?” And Billy says, “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues, you do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Supplying Guy’s answer, he adds, “You think that’s naive, don’t you?” And Guy verifies, “Yup, we [journalists] can’t afford to get involved.” Then as we see, Billy makes sure he does, with reports to his newspaper that become increasingly sympathetic to the people.
In a middle-class piece of the U.S. known as my neighborhood, you are aware without asking that we all feel the same way: remote from government, powerless to affect its murderous policies, living in an archaic political system called democracy, waiting for the other terrorists, the ones we call evil, to get their nuclear arsenal together in some semblance of a “state” in order to blast us to kingdom come.
In Billy’s impotent world of “Dangerously,” he finds strength in immediacy. While Guy and Jill are hanging out in his quarters waiting for him, on that glittering afternoon when they form a romantic understanding, they are both leaning forward staring at one of Billy’s photographs: a poor woman from the “inner city” and her woebegone little son whom Jill says Billy has adopted. Guy imagines for a second, with a smile, that Billy “has a woman” until Jill puts him straight, explaining that he gives them food and money, “that’s all.” At the end of that day, Guy, now smitten, exists in a hung time-frame until Billy makes a final move to get the two together.
Waving a British Embassy party invitation addressed to Guy in front of his face, he asks him if he doesn’t plan to go. Guy says he has no jacket and the British are hard to understand. Billy says the British are just more subtle, you have to listen harder, and — “Jill will be there.” A fast cut shows Guy in his hotel room scrambling in a suitcase, clothes flying, looking for a forgotten formal jacket. The next cut has him at the Embassy party staring into the crowd, spotting Jill chatting in a small group, heading toward her with grim purpose, a bull, a Zeus, the god who marched or galloped toward Europa to abduct her. He segregates her by grasping one of her arms and pulling her just outside the party environs, on some alcove or balcony, and Jill succumbs to his kisses but says she can’t possibly leave with him… that “All of Jakarta will know….” He stalks away and outside to his car, which won’t start, giving Jill time to change her mind and follow him. Now Zeus has Europa in his car, and he bears her off in a propulsive burst of his engine and of Maurice Jarre’s fabulous synethesizer score — a basso ostinato drumming underneath, like an insistent rapid heartbeat; brass or horn simulations in the middle register, and on top, an insanely driving exciting soprano melodic line. The denouement we all waited for is underway.
As they hurtle toward consummation, borne on the urgency of the score, with Jill all over Guy kissing him as he tries to handle his chariot, crashing through a military barrier marked by a leaping bonfire and armed soldiers who shoot to kill, madly laughing as they escape, operatic crescendos by Jill, baritone versions by Guy, now integrated with the pulsing orgasmic score, they are heading for Billy’s bungalow, vacated by him for just such an outcome. Then all is silence as you see Billy outside his place, his hand on Guy’s car, lingering a moment, savoring his triumph with a slight smile, knowing he has made love manifest in the besieged town of Jakarta. Love amidst crisis, the most believable kind of love in films, perhaps in life. I always fell in love when I needed saving. I know, by the way, who I am in these movie couples and it is not who I am supposed to be. I was plainly never Jill, or the “Brideshead” Julia, or let’s say Faye in “Chinatown” or Ingrid in “Casablanca” or whatshername who plays the Amish widow in “Witness,” another brilliant Weir film with a romance built on a crisis. A film featuring me has never been made. After seeing the two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the most recent beautifully structured and shot film with a convincing romance played out against a calamitous background, I tried to imagine a couple of women equally credible in love and in unlikely roles. That’s as far as I got. What on earth would such “unlikely roles” be? But let’s face it; we need a “Brokeback” for women. This thought may seem altogether vain and offensively privileged in light of the worldwide assaults on women and girls, America hardly excluded — murder, sexual slavery, genital mutilations, domestic violence and much more, currently well documented with stunning statistics by the United Nations. In the Jakarta of “Dangerously,” 1965, women are not singled out or identified as a specially oppressed group; they never are where cinematic slumming occurs. But Billy’s death is specifically linked to the impoverished uneducated woman and her little boy whom he has been helping with food, money, and love. He tells us about her plight: “In another country, she might be a decent woman. Here, she begs and perhaps sells herself. Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city.”
The death of the boy, who had become fatally ill, drives Billy to madness and suicide. “What then must we do?” he clamors over his typewriter, punching violently at the keys, detonating them, no longer able to find strength in immediacy, but compelled to think about the “major issues.” After leaving the dead boy and his grieving mother, he glares upward at a looming poster-portrait of Sukarno, once his hero, a leader of the people, now co-opted by the right in the military coup. Billy fashions a demonstration, hanging a banner outside a hotel window six or seven floors high, saying SUKARNO FEED YOUR PEOPLE, forcing him to hurl himself out the window to his death when two security guards of the new regime break into the room, aim their guns at him and start shooting. It was not just Sukarno, but Guy, by whom Billy felt undone. His handiwork matchmaking Guy and Jill looked destroyed after Guy betrayed Jill for his career, becoming just a guy you could say, no longer Billy’s creation: a man inspired by love.
Love and politics had intermingled suddenly when Jill at the British Embassy received a coded message from Singapore saying a shipment of arms is on its way from Shanghai for the PKI or Communist forces. If successfully in PKI hands, civil war would ensue, and all the Westerners in Jakarta would be slaughtered. Jill walks slowly, twisting uncertainly in a steady rain, accompanied by a somewhat muted version of Jarre’s electronic score, toward Guy’s office, evidently trying to make up her mind whether to tell him or not. But she will tell him — after they end up in bed, because she wants to save him (she says she can get him on a plane “tomorrow”). But Guy has other ideas. His eyes get big as pinwheels over the news, and he jumps at the fantastic scoop, ready instantly to risk their relationship by broadcasting the message, and to risk death by staying in Jakarta reporting a bloody civil war. Instead of course, the shipment never made it, or if it did, the military picked it up, and the fortunes of the British and other Westerners there changed. Now they didn’t have to leave but my impression is that most of them did — unwilling to witness the huge massacre of people that they divined or knew directly their governments were behind. It eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors. Chomsky says the massacre “was greeted with unrestrained euphoria” in the West. Isn’t this how most Americans felt about our invasions and countless slayings of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11?
The end of Billy in “Dangerously” effectively ends the movie. Both Guy and Jill are devastated by his fatal plunge to his death, and the film’s last scenes are vague codas making you wonder if Jill will take Guy back after his betrayal, and if Guy will help his case by giving up his designs to stay and report the horrors at hand, or escape Jakarta on the same plane as Jill, hoping she will have him. As Billy had said at some point, invoking Jesus or Tolstoy, who became a Christian anarchist, believing only things Jesus reportedly said, not what the Church made of him, “We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.” In our movie-looking path, we sigh with relief seeing Guy walk across an expanse of airport tarmac, his left eye heavily bandaged after an encounter with the security police, no baggage on him except his passport, his khaki jumpsuit stained dark with sweat, reunited with Jill as she embraces him in the door of a Royal Netherlands airplane.
For us film-infatuated Westerners, Billy’s vision and legacy of romantic love remains intact.
Chantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, (Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)
First published on our sister publication the Maison de Traduction in 2018 and revised today. Chantal Akerman killed herself on October 5, 2015. Unfortunately, the intellectual level of the discourse at the middle-brow Radio France chain France Culture has only deteriorated since this piece was first published. The daily book program has now been changed to an ‘oeuvre’ emission, focusing its opening week on Stanley Kubrick. Most of the authors producer Guillaume Erner interviewed and promoted during the drive-time program’s first weeks were fellow France Culture animators. By far the chain’s most erudite program, Questions d’Islam, is broadcast at 7 a.m. Sunday morning — when some of the people who most need to hear it are likely to be sleeping it off. And a new Sunday show, Sign of the Times, devoted more time to discussing the “Caca Club” a recent guest belonged to 30 years ago than the actual book which was the show’s putative subject; when the program’s other guest, a (female) literary critic, finally managed to get a word in edgewise to talk about the ‘oeuvre’ in question, the (like the author, male) host cut her off after 30 seconds with: “We don’t want to do a conference here.” Signs of the times indeed. (What does this rant have to do with Chantal Akerman, besides as indicated below? Unlike these programs, like the true intellectual and artist she was, Akerman never spoon-fed her public answers and meaning in pre-masticated mental baby food. Why are we running this piece again — albeit with revisions? Because it’s important to continue to hear the voices of the heretics.)
“Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you.
Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you….
Strike another match, let’s start anew.
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
– Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez
Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, and Phillip Larkin that criticism can be its own art form – Corinne Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. On Radio France’s nightly critical round-table La Dispute, the rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Rondeau’s. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou on on one of my cinematic super-cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties — these days Radio France might as well be called Radio MIT (all Muslims, Immigrants, and Terrorism, all the time) — promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.
As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.
Chantal Akerman. Courrtesy Cinematheque Française.
Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder, and/or the pained reaction of the child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015 — 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps — guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece on Akerman’s work and death appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here), seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris shortly after the November 13 massacres of 130 civilians wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives. (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after she caught a screening at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives of Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother (enacted by Delphine Seyrig and her daughter).
Chantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre” as part of a month-long retrospective.
Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the oeuvre itself, after having attempted to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but reflect that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of us. Her vision of the work often seems to be directed by her own theories and aesthetic pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio perambulations, in which Rondeau tries to decipher what an artist is trying to say and then explains in lucid, brilliant, and down-to-earth terms how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain the basis for her conclusion that it’s a central preoccupation for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau in a museum or gallery, riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.
Chantal Akerman, “La Chambre.” Copyright Chantal Akerman.
First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.
After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own advice by exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very brief book with more tantalizing citations of Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades: Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot – even Gershom Scholem, who proved to be my downfall in Martha Himmelfarb’s Judaism in the Greco-Roman World class my first freshman year at Princeton …. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are often perceived through negative prisms (targets of anti-Semitism, vicitms of the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter how grave its war crimes and crimes against humanity, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or positive stereotypes that are just as racialist as the negative ones (if I hear Radio France refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) — in this general ambiance which circumscribes “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once inspired me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by innate curiosity and the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but stretching into lay terrain. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, “Monsieur Hugo” with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment (I’m older now and more perceptive, if not more wiser), cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.” (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here in France, even on middle-brow France Culture radio (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)
So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems to me that she wants to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identity and on the other to be able to liberally cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s work.
Delphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, ” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m.
More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues – the Chantal clique — who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with even an elementary plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most expert of critics usually doesn’t assume the reader has already seen the work s/he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby – half a century after the epoch he was writing about — it didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the performances nor even most of the ballets he was responding to; I was enraptured — he and other critics I read at the time (notably Marcia B. Siegel) helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her regard is so precisely brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated and philosophically dense (without being opaque), than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp (and not one as colorfully perilous as Renoir’s in his Louisiana swamp film) without a map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves me with a clear sense of where both he and the film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York (and maybe Chicago, where she shows up in a course on Time at the School of the Art Institute), the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman. When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas graced with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)
“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.
I’ve considered whether it might be my perception – my own lack of theoretical background — and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to fathom her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” — as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel. (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)
“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film in which we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film in which it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis. It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure [Akerman’s decision to kill herself comes to mind], to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm, wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse. Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations: the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarcation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.
“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”
And a bit later:
“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”
After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic maintains a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us – even we critics censé d’etre sur-doué avec des pouvoirs de perception super-human — can aspire to, with any of our creator subjects. And that – justement – goes beyond a simple grasp of the stories Akerman is recounting (and re-recounting), and even any uber story, to lassoe, however tenuously (like a cowboy trying to get ahold of and pin down a heifer who’s hide has been greased) the metaphysical meaning and potential resonances of Akerman’s oeuvre. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the place cinema occupies as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” – a decree Rondeau brilliantly supports by evoking the film’s sequence of the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river — might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory and how it (mis)informs our regard towards the past. (And even beyond the realm of cinema: “Leave your stepping stones behind you, something calls to you. / Forget the dead you’ve left they will not follow you…./ Strike another match, let’s start anew. /And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” – Bob Dylan, as interpreted by Joan Baez.) I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic tendancies, often goaded by cinematic evocations of epochs I never lived (in particular the late 1940s and the 1950s, a passion albeit tempered lately by the acquisition in a Left Bank bookstore of I.F. Stone’s “The Haunted Fifties”; Ike may have been liked but he let McCarthy get away with murder).
“De l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”
As if to confirm my impression that elsewhere Rondeau sometimes loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom). Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen (see above regarding the rarity of Akerman projections outside of Paris and New York), the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” (Here’s an alternative idea for Donald Trump. Or perhaps a mirror would be more appropriate in this case.) This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace (except her bones, as has discovered another artist who’s made it his mission to track migrants’ skeletons in the Sonora desert of Arizona so he can put up memorials to the thousands who have perished there), the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.
When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)
Juliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved. Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7|:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..
At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while his Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate; living in Belleville in 2015, from my window I saw, and heard, the spectacle of a team of city workers taking down a whole apartment building and two cherry trees so they could replace it with another.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission and because of the demands of one of the stars.
So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.
As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2, the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, passionate devotion, emotional implication and investment, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.
Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.
*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.
** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.
***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on the DI/AV on February 14, 2013. Today’s re-posting is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance.
If you think Butoh is the excruciatingly slow (or delectably languorous, depending on your point of view) dance interpreted by performers doused in flour that its Western acolytes have laid claim to with Zen-like fervor and wonder why this post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki art form was once called the ‘dance of darkness,’ Donald Richie’s 1959 “Sacrifice / Gisei,” being screened Sunday February 24 at Anthology Film Archives as part of its mini-festival of Film Experiments in 1960-70s Japan (meant to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s Tokyo 1955 – 1970: A New Avant-Garde exhibition closing Monday), will set you straight. The dance captured here is neither slow nor nuanced. Indeed, in a response typical of an ignorant Western critic, when the 8mm to video 10-minute piece opened (American so-called Butoh interpreters would take 10 minutes just to move a muscle), the performers running in circles and lifting their arms over alternating shoulders moved so gracelessly that at first I mistook the choreography for a paltry Japanese imitation of Judson, before I read the press release and realized that this Butoh authentically captured reveals the opposite, how diluted the ‘dance of darkness’ has become as it’s been transmitted by generations of non-Japanese interpreters. Click here to read the rest of the story.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to email@example.com , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)
When I passed into the valley of Ti-n-tamat, I said in my interior to [my wife] The-anegh:
The night is coming; I’m going to look for the camels.
The-anegh, sleep will not come to me [because the thought of you is ever-present].
— Elkhasen agg Ikki des Kel Amedjid (1830 – 1894), Touareg poet, translated into French by Charles de Foucauld, as cited by Amalia Dragani and published by the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge in PB-I’s translation of her article
Lay down my child
and rest your head
Gonna hang the dreamcatcher
Right over your bed.
Lay down, lay down
Don’t be afraid
Gonna chase the bad dreams away.
— Donna Summer, “Dreamcatcher”
I fall in love too easily.
— Frank Sinatra
PARIS — Absent the red wine, I had to look for my sparkle elsewhere, and soon found it in the violette-maned, bespectacled young woman sitting 20 feet away from me dangling her fuchsia-stockinged legs over the tip of the Ile St.-Louis facing a Notre-Dame somewhat the worse for wear after 800 years. Moi, with my shining new teeth I wasn’t quite so decrepit as the church, at least on the outside. On the inside, I was still smarting from my failure the previous week-end to offer to share my clear plastic umbrella with the Paris skyline with the lissome young woman in jeans and hooded white North Face jacket standing next to me on the corner of the rue Marie & Louise waiting for a stoplight to change so that we could march under a torrential rain from the Canal St.-Martin to the boulevard Belleville. “I was afraid she’d think I was some kind of weirdo trying to ‘drague’ her,” I’d explained later to my longtime friend Anatole in his electrician’s shop while he tinkered over a silver stand-up neon-tube lamp from the 1960s. “What does that say about what I think of myself?” “You think too much is what it says,” Anatole had answered without looking up from the tangle of wires upon which he was working his magic. Then, plugging the brown chord into a multi-prise outlet which fed an amber light into the neon bar, he’d concluded: “You just need to act.”
So once the violette-haired fuchsia-stockinged nana in the school-girl style skirt had smiled at me from under her librarian-style glasses on the Ile St.-Louis — home-field advantage — I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t venture something. After we’d toasted each other — “Tchin!” “Tchin!” — over, respectively, my cup of thermos tea and her plastic water bottle, the best I could come up with (as Cary Grant, who, indicating the couples making out on benches on the Right Bank of the Seine as he stood watching from the deck of a bateau mouche with Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade” had boasted “I taught them everything they know” — blanched in embarrassment at how I was botching his legacy), was:
“I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and my French isn’t very good.”
“Which part of America?”
“Actually I’m English.”
“I’m part English.”
“Actually I’m from Germany.”
“Where in Germany?”
At this point (perhaps realizing I wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, even though we were now shouting at each other over a gay male couple trying to make out… as Cary had taught them) she picked up her bottle, scooped up her skirt, approached the spot where my legs were perched on a set of stairs leading down to the river, and delicately sat down next to me, as a barge bearing 10 tons of sand and 10 centuries of history passed under the bridge connecting the Ile de Cité to the Ile St.-Louis.
“Dortmund, Dortmund. I think there’s a good dance company there.”
“I design children’s books.”
“I once wrote a children’s book.”
“Oh, you did?” she beamed (I’ve avoided using this très inexact stand-in for ‘said’ for 40 years, but it fits here to describe the delight that lit up her eyes and cheeks and also sets up the comparison between Parisian and foreign women that’s right around the corner; be thankful that I’ve not yet told you her name, thus saving you from the facile alliteration which would ensue were I to replace ‘she’ with ‘Betty’), wide-eyed with marvel.
“Actually, it’s a group of children’s stories with the umbrella title ‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told.’ They’re stories a father tells to his daughter as they wait for the mother to come home from a late Christmas Eve errand.”
“‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told’?” she encouraged me, the eyes now so wide they illuminated the delicate magenta freckles on her dimpled cheeks like Gatsby’s green light beckoning from the other side of the Sound with its dreams of some kind of epic grandeur.
“Yes, you know, that large shell, in English it’s called a conch shell” — at this point I cupped the imaginary crustacean over my ear — “where if you listen you can hear the sea?” (Years ago, after reading about a conch excursion off New York Harbor in Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel,” I’d spent an evening scouring all of Little Italy for a restaurant still serving scungilli, and finally found one down the street from my pad on W. 8th Street next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio.)
“Yes yes, in Bremen they say that you can hear the Brothers Grimm. Why did you decide to write children’s stories?”
“Actually they wrote themselves. I was going through a break-up and at the same time I was baby-sitting. I couldn’t very well sob my heart out to the seven-year-old, so I made up stories for her that at the same time served as parables to help me process what I was going through.” (It had begun innocently enough, with the woman, 12 years my senior — the perfect 36 — beaming at me across a dinner table in a Pacific Heights mansion converted into a restaurant and exclaiming “You’re so nubile!”)
“Such as the story of ‘The White Pimple.'”
“‘The White Pimple!'” she said, clapping her hands together as if clamoring to hear the story as that girl had done in the Parnassus street bedroom of a San Francisco Edwardian 33 years ago. “It’s about a monster pimple?”
“No, it’s about a beautiful princess who wakes up one morning to find a white pimple on her face. She demands that her father the king do something, he engages a series of magicians who each in turn produce increasingly disastrous results: The pimple multiplies, the pimple is joined by warts, the pimples and warts turn multiple colors. Each one she kicks out the window of her room in the tower — kind of like that princess in the Tower of Nesle over there on the other side of the Seine who stuffed her dead lover into a burlap sack and tossed it to servants waiting on the sidewalk below so they could dump his body in the river — and he tumbles to his death.”
“Hah hah hah!”
“…until the last one, who takes one look at the pimple and faints. The princess rushes to his side and asks, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, is it my pimple?’ ‘Yes, it’s your pimple. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ From that day on, every morning when she wakes up the princess still rushes to her mirror, only now it’s not to see if the pimple has disappeared but to assure herself that ‘it’s still there. My BEAUTIFUL white pimple is still there.'”
“That’s the problem today,” the young woman assented (she’d stopped beaming). “The ads on the television and in the magazines are telling all the girls they have to be skinny and have a certain look.”
“Yes, it’s really sick when nine-year-olds are going on diets.”
“And the social networks make it worse, like Instagram.”
“I don’t know Instagram.”
“It lets you doctor your pictures, so they’re not really you.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to doctor this girl’s picture. (And now I can’t imagine why I didn’t tell her this at the time. That’s me, ‘toujours en retard’ ((always late)) Ben-Itzak. Ou en bon française: ‘Lentement sur le pick-up.’)
“My name’s Paul.”
“Enchanté…. Is it ‘Bette’ or ‘Betty’?”
“Betty.” Given that recently I’d been spending more of my Paris evenings watching re-runs of Mad Men than offering my umbrella to lissome Parisiennes, it was inevitable that the first girl I would meet on a rare night out would be named Betty. (And in her doll-like egg-shaped visage, look like a sort of post-modern 2019 European update of Betty Draper Francis.)
“And you design children’s books?”
“Well, that’s just one of my jobs. I also design hard rock albums. And you’re a writer!” The way she said it made it sound like I was on my way to the other side of the Seine to join Zola in the Pantheon.
“This is my tenth time in Paris. I have to go back tomorrow,” we were Thursday, “and Saturday I’ll be back at my desk in Dortmund!”
Our conversation shifted to the topic of dreams after she asked about the furry white ring onto which the stumps of turquoise and orange feathers were fastened by yellow pipe-cleaners, with a red bead stringed to a sort of cat’s cradle plastic arrangement in the middle, le tout tied to my red bandana by a red ribbon. “It’s a dreamcatcher I found on the sidewalk just after crossing the frontier to Paris on my birthday,” I explained. “It’s for catching nightmares.”
“Maybe you could lend it to me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
“I keep having these nightmares.”
“What kind of nightmares?”
“I’m entering an… how do you say… elevator?”
“Like the ones in ‘Elevator for the Scaffold,’ with the Miles Davis soundtrack, where the guy gets stuck on an elevator all night after murdering his lover Jeanne Moreau’s husband.” (You’re doing fine, PB-I; a girl with fuchsia stockings who’s just come over to you on the Ile St. Louis as the Sun setting over the Seine and Notre-Dame supplies all the AT-MO-SPHERE you need starts talking elevators and instead of making like Eddie Money and proposing to share your two tickets to Paradise, you continue talking murder.)
“Well, in my dreams the elevator has no floor and I keep falling.”
“You know, in the southern Algerian Touareg dialect of ‘Tamahaq'” — on my way to this rendez-vous, a frantic bouquiniste had tried to sell me a copy of the first Touareg-French dictionary, produced in the early 20th century by the French missionary Charles de Foucauld while he was charting 2,000 kilometers of Touareg territory, that I’d been casually examining by lowering the price — “the word for dream, ‘tahârgit’ or ‘tergit,’ also means ‘nocturnal pollution.'” (This detail had been unearthed by Amalia Dragani, an Italian researcher whose paper on the dreams of the Touaregs I’d once translated for the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge.) “Myself, I seem to dream a lot about looking down at my feet and discovering I’ve lost my shoes. Or going back to school and signing up for all these classes I really want to take and then missing them.”
“Well Paul, I have to go now.” (I’m misplacing this announcement, so you shouldn’t necessarily connect it to the dreams.) The Sun was just setting over the Seine.
“Here’s my card.”
“Oh, you have a card!” Betty declared as if I’d just handed her my Legion of Honor pin instead of a very home-made looking brown business card. “I’ll look at your sites. And I’ll write you.”
Of course, me being me, afterwards I reproached myself for not telling Betty about the Open Studios of Belleville starting the next day and suggesting she delay her departure so that I could show her around ‘my’ ‘hood. (Now that I think about this logically, having been shuffled around to four different stations by the French train company to change one ticket, I understand that this might have been problematic.) When I recounted my victory — over my own inhibitions — to Anatole on Saturday, he was proud of me and agreed that just in itself, the moment was worth savoring, like a brief encounter he’d had recently with a Turkish woman on the boulevard Magenta, after which he’d told me, “Note that she was foreign. Couldn’t have happened with a French girl.” So he was not surprised when I told him Betty was German. “Foreigners just seem to be more open, less fearful,” he pointed out, than French women, an assessment I agreed with. “Yes, I remember once several years ago” — 15 actually — “I had an intern here from California. We were walking in the 16th arrondissement when we stopped for a toilet break. When I emerged a French guy was chatting Nicole up. Later she explained to me that after driving past her on his motorcycle, he’d screeched to a halt, circled back, and asked her, “You’re not French, are you?” “How did you know that?” “You’re smiling. French girls never smile.”
I know what you’re thinking: If French girls are so closed, what am I doing in France, where the odds would seem to be stacked against me, trouver l’ame-soeur-wise? But a ready smile can also be vacuous and remember, you’re talking to a guy who isn’t quick enough to offer to share his clear plastic umbrella with a damsel in distress being doused on an afternoon when “it’s raining like a cow pissing,” to cop a French metaphor. (Maybe I’ll try that line the next time: “Madame, may I shelter you from the cow piss?,” although if she’s French this may just prompt her to invert my invitation to “May I piss on you?”) But the middle passage — after the initial suspicion and before the final curdling of a wound I have no idea how I inflicted — between me and French women is usually pretty magical, or at least sympathetic. We connect, and often around subjects on which we share the same perspective.
On the first night of the cat-sitting gig up top Belleville near the Place des Fetes which had made it possible for me to be there on the Ile St.-Louis to encounter Betty that evening, I’d discovered that my client and I were in complete synchronicity on the ludicrousness of the latest fashion trend which has half the women of Paris trying to dress like Sid Vicious, with pre-fabricated holes and slices in various parts of their jeans. (“Coming over here from the Metro,” I’d told the client whom we’ll call Sylvie for now as the verdict on our future is still out, “I crossed a woman on the Place des Fetes who had so many holes in and strips of rented clothing hanging from her jeans I was tempted to ask, “Mais Madame, qu’est que vous etes arrivé?” Nodding vigorously, ‘Sylvie’ had informed me with pride (by way of affirming that she didn’t follow mode), “All my clothes are second-hand. It’s just not that important.” It was at about this moment, looking over at her from my too-wide grey Marseille jeans, third-hand striped pink short sleeve shirt, and found class project dreamcatcher attached to Texas bandana (another good omen was that she had a genuine one hanging over the bed in which I’d be sleeping while she was away), as the argyle salve ‘Sylvie”d given me continued to heal the five-inch finger wound I’d inflected on myself by reaching into my back-pack to search for my reading glasses at the Place d’Italie Metro so I could decipher the map and forgetting about the unprotected razors I’d hastily stashed there, that I’d started to fall in love with her.
Jean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)
“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019
PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?
To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.
From the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.
But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.
“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:
** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)
** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)
** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)
** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”
The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)
Johan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.
It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.
This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).
(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)
Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.
Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”
“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)
“I’m still interested.”
“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)
My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)
Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):
“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.
Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.
I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.
The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)
Who’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.
Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.
Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)
Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:
“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)
Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.
As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.
Recently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.
Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)
After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”
After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.
I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.
Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.
Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.
In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)
This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….