Lutèce Diaries, 3: Trans Tintin on rue Montorgueil, Superman in St.-Germain des près, Shoah Puppets on Mouffetard — the Journal of a Blood-sucking Critic

joseph yes gorgeous smallJoseph, “Yes gorgeous,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.  Don’t miss  out on our upcoming coverage from Paris and Lyon of art, theater, film, puppets, and dance from around the world! Drop a line to artsvoyager@gmail.com with the words “Flash Me, Dance Insider & Arts Voyager” and we’ll add you to our list. Any and all references to my teeth and any blood from therein are hyperbolic poetic license; if I’ve made the journey from the Southwest of France to Paris, it’s not for the art but because  my dentist here is the best — and kindest — in the world and the only one in whom I’ve ever had confidence. And who would no doubt be distressed to learn that I did not head straight home after our last appointment.)

PARIS — Only a nut for culture and for a Paris retrouvé to which he’d re-taken (“First we’ll take Manhattan, then we’ll take Paris” — Leonard Cohen via Jennifer Warnes, tweaked) like the proverbial canard to water would think of strolling from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine in sub-freezing climes, traversing the most luminous river in the world — they say the light comes from all the souls that have found their final solace in her fathomless depths and all the hearts that have fused on her bridges, boats, and benches (“I started that” — Cary Grant to Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” pointing to the lovers necking on the quays from the deck of a bateau mouche) — and then hop-scotching from several openings in the gallery grotto of Saint-Germain-des-Près to the heights of the Latin Quarter to mouffe tard (work late) on the rue Mouffetard with a puppet hoarder of Holocaust detritus while surrounded by 50 hushed school-children, right after having three teeth extracted. And did I mention that I forgot the Ibuprofen, which I told myself would make me all the more able to empathize with the Shoah victims (later to have their fillings extracted after being gassed), but which only left me to grit the hemoglobin-soaked bandage over my gums and become the living embodiment of the blood-sucking critic?

joseph kiss smallJoseph, “What does a kiss mean,” 2018. Acrylic, collage and résin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

The most provocative piece of art I saw all evening was the illicit poster someone had painted on an entire building wall, near the arched gateway to the rue Montorgueil, of Tintin — celebrating his 90th birthday this year, and acting pretty frisky for his age — illicitly planting a tender wet kiss on the mouth of Captain Haddock, enough to make the mullahs of Moulinsart bent on upscaling the image of Hergé as a high-class painter piss their pants, but not enough to distract me from the Starbucks shingle which continues to tackify the entrance to one of the most typical passages of Paris, once memorialized by Claude Monet. Lingering 20 minutes later on the Pont des Arts to wait for the Eiffel to sparkle up (after shaking my head over the construction blight of the former Samaritain — when last seen, Kylie Minogue was diving off the roof of the late multi-block department store, one inspiration for Zola’s “The Happiness of Ladies,” in Leo Carax’s “Holy Motors” — being made over into a luxury hotel so that rich foreigners have a place to sleep until they can buy a place through one of the numerous real estate agencies which have replaced my favorite cheese boutiques and used record shops, and to pay hommage at the school on the Street of the Dry Tree where they once vainly tried to teach me about the imperfect past), I was relieved to see that the faux graffiti wall with which the city had replaced the chain fencing in an attempt to stymie the love-locks which had threatened to make the bridge fall into the river had been supplanted by a sleek glass barrier. After reconnoitering a dark corner on the Left Bank near the water that seemed propitious for a minimal-risk piss (I’ve been nervous ever since the police caught me relieving myself by a tree on the Ile St. Louis in 2005, when I hadn’t dared cite Malcolm McLaren in my defense: “Everybody pees on Paris, watch me now.”), I reflected that confined to clusters in the middle and at the top of the bridge lamp-posts that made them resemble bouquets for robots, the love-locks now actually had something to do with love. (One unclear on the concept wag had written on his, “Love doesn’t need locks,” before bolting it.) Prodded by the memory of a long-ago futile search for a public urinal on the rues Bonaparte and Visconti, I finally plunged down a stairway and mingled my waters with the crepuscular dew, spitting out the blood-drenched gum bandage in a poubelle at the base of the Nesle Tower — where an ancient royal Rapunzel once tempted various cavaliers who lost their heads for their gallantry — before heading to the galleries so that I could shut my trap and not reveal that I was one fangless critic.

joseph superman smallJoseph, “No time to lose (Superman),” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 70 cm. Courtesy Gallery Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

If there had been any police patrolling in the area, Superman was waiting to rescue me, emitting scarlet beams of x-ray vision from both eyes over a collage of ’50s Life magazine ads lacquered into art by the eponymous Joseph and on display (through the end of the month) at the Galerie Roy Sfeir, the first on the rue de Seine if you’re coming from the river. (And one of the only galleries I spotted — not counting those hosting openings — where the gallerist wasn’t huddling behind a computer screen.) Behind twin bull-dog sculptures guarding the 12 or so oeuvres — most topped off by comic-book like soap-operatic bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein — the gallery’s owner was discussing the “Yellow Vests” phenomenon with a client. When they asked my opinion (I’m not sharing theirs because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist) and then said they had no idea what I’d just said, for once I had a retort that headed off any comment on my accent:

“Itf becaufe I’fe juft come from fe dentisf.”

roy lichtenstein artist's studioAmong the 44 works whose recent installation has renewed the Contemporary Collection on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is, above, Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The art by Joseph featured here evokes his American artistic ancestor.

Next I scrunched into the barely three-person-wide “Petite Gallery” — “Let the monsieur in, he’s actually here pour voir, pas pour boire” (to look, not to drink) — for a group exhibition that, in appreciation for the conviviality with which the ensemble welcomed a demi-sans-dent individual they had no idea was a blood-sucking critic, I’ll diplomatically refrain to comment on — before landing at my destination gallery, on whose exhibition, thanks to the flack who treated my modest request for three images *in the appropriate size* like she was doing me a favor even though she did know I was a journalist, I’ve not so diplomatically — okay, childishly — decided not to waste any more energy on here.

In contrast to the kind folks at the Petite Gallery, the Centre Pompidou is no doubt big enough to withstand a little biting criticism from a demi-sans-dent critic. So I was practically delighted to find matter for a rant in the mammoth “Without the Centre Pompidou, Paris wouldn’t be Paris” English-language poster that reared its head before me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as I made my way towards Mouffetard for my Shoah puppet show. After mentally dispensing this pedagogy (this is what French commentators call it when they want to explain to you why you’re wrong and they’re right), I crossed St.-Mich and turned onto the rue des Ecoles so I could explore what the Latin quarter cinemas were offering before the show. In the lobby of the Grand Action, an apparently jet-lagged young woman with a Nordic accent (and so Nordically enveloped I can’t describe her better than that) was asking the ticket-seller, “Am I in Paris?”

If there had previously been any doubt in my mind, I definitely knew I was in Paris when I scaled the mount St. Genevieve, one of the oldest streets in Lutèce (the city’s name in Roman times), and definitely knew I was still inevitably an American in Paris when I paused to pay the obligatory homage to Hemingway at Papa’s former roost up top the rue Cardinal Lemoine, more or less catty-corner from Descartes’s former digs on the rule Rollin, and where I resisted the temptation to channel the Gorilla Girl inside me and amend the Paris is a Moving Feast citation “Lucky the man who has spent part of his youth in Paris” with “and the semi-toothless blood-sucking journalist who’s still here.” Speaking of youth and ecoliers, in the courtyard at the end of the alley leading to the Mouffetard theater of the Art of the Marionette I was immediately surrounded by 50 schoolchildren decidedly mouffing tard, no doubt for the educational value of a puppet show about the Holocaust or Shoah, as it’s referred to here.

Despite the presence of several superficially stereotypical Jewish puppet characters (a bent-over Hasid, an Einstein-lookalike with a magic cigar box hanging from his neck) designed after the now exhausted Czech National Puppet Theatre model what I liked about the endearing Alexandre Haslé’s production of Daniel Keene’s “The Rain” for the Lendemains de la veille company was that despite what I said above, as there’s nothing in the piece explicitly linking it to the Holocaust the message is not limited to that one deportation and period. As Haslé suggested in brief comments after curtain, the simple plot premise — an old woman surrounded by the possessions neighbors gave her before boarding trains of no return when she was a girl — could apply to many contemporary situations and displaced populations. He cited, somewhat vaguely, “Italy, Spain — even France.” Perhaps because I’ve just finished reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine,” with its depictions of Palestinian families given an hour to quit their ancestral homes before Israel blows them up in acts of collective punishment for the first Infitadah — I’d add Palestine/Israel to the tale’s potential resonances. Which is a way to say that what I appreciated in this tale and its presentation was the universality of its message’s application. For this reason, I was encouraged that their parents and teachers had let the school-children mouffe tard. One of the problems I have with the “Yellow-Vest” movement which has been the chou-chou of the French media for the past two months is its “Me First” mentality. In this context any measure that fosters empathy — I’ve never seen a crowd of children so quiet and enraptured — in the next generation is a welcome tonic.

I’d love to stay and cat, but I’ve got a busy day ahead: This time the dentist is taking out a nerve, after which I’ve blithely made a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire (following another rendez-vous with Bernhardt), et dans laquelle il n’y aurait aucun risque que je morde.

joseph happiness smallJoseph, “Happiness,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

 

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The Lutèce Diaries, 2: Ils sont tous les enfants de la Republique; The Jewish Book of the Dead; Paris Survival Secrets

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

PARIS — A DJ I used to know, commenting on one of my elliptical returns to San Francisco from inside the booth of the busy Kennel Club on Divisadero on World Beat night, once explained, “It’s the spirit of the Indian god of Tamalpais. It makes sure you always return to the source.” Tamalpais has nothing on Sigmund Freud, the street named after whom serves as a kind of Rubicon between the prè St.-Gervais ‘burb where I’ve found impeccable digs (thank you, CD and EA) and the Eastern quartiers of Paris, and which somehow found a way Tuesday to steer me away from the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood I was aiming for — it reminds me of SF’s Mission District, with Muslims and Jews, Africans and Asians, BoBos and genuine Bohemians, and succulent pork brioches from Wei Zu province and black dates from the Algerian Bled harmoniously (and deliciously) existing side by side — to Lubavitcher central. I was relieved once I’d crossed the street from a block lined with Kosher grocery stores offering sacks of dubious-looking alleged “bagels” (if they’re not made with New York water, forgetaboutit, and if they’re large, watch out; I subsequently had nightmares about being trampled by wagon-wheels construed of these round baguettes with holes) to a corner presided over by the Haman Medical Center. (Not to say that I wasn’t tempted to enter the Jewish grocery store and ask if they had “Shiksa,” fortunately remembering in time that what I meant was “Kishka,” the most scrumptious and least healthy delicacy Jewish cuisine has to offer, and rien a voir with “Shiksa,” which will sterilize you, Jewish progenitor-wise ((after my annual New Year’s Eve re-viewing of “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Française as part of its Billy Wilder retrospective, everything is now -wise with me, and not just because it’s my Kiev-born grandmother’s Ellis Island-truncated maiden name. And if you’re thinking about calling me a Wisenheimer, forgetaboutit it.))) (And if you’re wondering why I’m determined to avoid Jewish neighborhoods like Albert Camus‘s Plague, let’s just say that in France the Jewish question is too loaded and in the Wild West ambiance of the Internet it’s too loaded for me to tell you why. Yes, I don’t just adulate the fat of chickens — see above under “Kischka” — I am one.)

When the rue Petite finally spat me out at the Laumiere Metro station a couple blocks from the La Villette Basin (to borrow a phrase from Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma, who provided the blue-print for private dicks in French literature), I realized that I was heading away from Belleville. Discovering grace of a handy-dandy Metro station You are Here map that walking in the other direction would take me to the man-made Buttes Chaumont park and waterfalls, from which I knew the way to Belleville if not San Jose, I headed up-hill. Realizing that the trajectory would enable me to discover if the other, second-floor lodging I’d been considering, facing the park on the rue de Crimee (Kiev again), was really as “calm at the exterior” as its proprietor had claimed, I was comforted in my choice of the pré St. Gervais. While the absentee owner can’t have been expected to have known this, two houses down from the building municipal workers were drilling up the carrefour (corner crossing), as part of a city-wide initiative to renovate the gas network. Again. Secret to Surviving Living in Paris No. 1: Don’t. (Live in Paris.) Pick a ‘burb on a Metro line, which foyer you’ll bless every friggin’ time you come home to your refuge from the noise, pollution, and speed of Paris. (Taking my life into my own hands at several street crossings, I was reminded of what a denizen of car-crazy Fort Worth, Texas had once told me as we waited for the green light at a vast intersection to give us 10 seconds to get to the other side. Pointing at the cross-walk, he declared, “Death.”)

What I love about my choice, the prè St.-Gervais, is its charming desuetitude, or obsolescence. Even the recoop chair I’m writing you from, with its Jetson-style curved back and early ’60s olive-green carpeted hide, qualifies as endearingly obsolete, the perfect bons mots launching pad for a throwback like me, who persists in perpetrating an obsolete trade.

Speaking of time capsules, heading down the rue la Villette from the Buttes Chaumont towards the rue Belleville and running into the rue Fessart, I decided to look for No. 22, the former hide-out of the notorious Bonnot Band of anarchists where the adventure of the young heroes of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), the novel for which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher, begins, so that I could say a little prayer to whatever Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Anarchist, and most of all New York publishing world gods would listen. Fortifying myself with the famous pork brioche at a dim sum place just above the Boulevard Belleville (after a detour down the rue Cascades, accessed via the rue Levert stairway where Pascal met his “Red Balloon” in the Albert Lamorisse film I must have seen 100 times as a kid, to salute to the ancient water cisterns that used to hold the water flowing down to Paris from the abbeys and then back towards the parvis of the parc Belleville for the best view of the Eiffel tower in town, trying to ignore the restaurant marquee on the rue Piat which exclaimed, in English, “Thank God for Broccoli,” yet another sign that Belleville isn’t just being BoBoized, it’s being Anglo-Bobo-ized) — the decor and the prices of the bakery where I used to get my customary pork bun had unfortunately been BoBo-ized — I entered the gauntlet of my favorite marché in France, the place where the multi-cultural Babel of voices makes me feel the most ‘chez moi.’ (Actually I only entered it to make my purchases. If Secret of Surviving Living in Paris No. 2 is get your fruits and veggies at the ‘Arab’ markets, annex to Secret etc is once you’ve located your favorite stands, skirt the alleys of the market by advancing on the sidewalk behind them, only peneterating them for search and purchase missions.)

The very fact that all these people from all these cultures are able to advance along the narrow alleys, meandering over several city blocks, compressed between the two rows of stands of bananas, multi-colored cornet peppers, sizzling hot-pepper filled Maghrebian savory pastries being fried up by smiling scarf-wearing women, pavements slippery from being hosed down by fish-mongers, knick-knack hawkers (4 toothbrushes for 1 Euro, like everything) and spicy merguez sausage sellers, squeezed tighter than a can of (Moroccan imported) Harisa-drenched sardines without a single fight breaking out belies the image some abroad may have of a France, and a Europe, torn by sectarian strife. WE LIVE TOGETHER, AND WE THRIVE ON THIS ACCESS TO CUISINES AND GOODS FROM ALL OUR GLOBAL CULTURES. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the Chinese restaurant owner, Nigerian babushka, or English tourist (typically speaking only English) haggling with the Arab sweet-potato vendor. (I use the ethnic identifiers so you can visualize the scene, but to me they’re all French, or at least Parisian.)

Emerging from this gauntlet at Menilmontant, and after looking up the hill to salute the wall-scale painting of “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” I returned to another other mecca, the French Arab epicerie where the same hot pepper, garlic, and citrus-infused olives and peppers that go for 24 Euros a kilo in the Southwest of France can be had for 4.60. (When I mentioned this to the owners squabbling at the cash register, the female half, clad in a black full-length gown and elegant black and white hood — the only reason I keep highlighting the local duds is to point out that it’s not like these women are being sequestered by their husbands and fathers in darkened rooms, they are fully integrated into French public life; it’s just that their scarves are more visible than, say, the wigs worn by their Hassidic counterparts which turns some French feminists beet red with indignation — replied, “All the more reason to stock up!”) The 1.20 can of Palestinian humus and 2.30 bottle of Dutch peanut-butter bringing my sack and pushing my sciatic-harboring back to breaking point, I passed through the Art Nouveau red lamps to descend into the Menilmontant Metro, only to find that the ticket machine didn’t take paper money. “You have to walk to the next Metro stop,” the dread-locked dude behind the information window informed me, which of course was Pere Lachaise, immediately torpedoing my resolution to avoid cemeteries this time around (Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, and Camille Pissarro are among the many bodies buried there) and try to find my muses (and counsels) among the living.

I perked up when I realized that this detour, perilous as it was for my dormant herniated disc, would also allow me to score my generous slice of Diplomate (like bread pudding, only moister) gateau at another of my regular Arab-European (bakery goods-wise) boulangeries. As usual, the (scarf-coiffed) matron behind the counter ignored my request not to close the paper around the Diplomate (they may have the best deserts in the world, but the French still haven’t figured out how to make a paper wrapping that doesn’t rip the top off), but given that the 1 Euro price hadn’t risen in four years, I decided to be a diplomat and not insist.

Tempted as I was to devour the Diplomate on the rim of Bernhardt’s tomb, after remembering what happened the last time I did this (“In France, we don’t dine on graves,” an uppity ersatz tourist guide had scolded me, tempting me to retort, “And unlike what you just told your clients, Sarah Bernhardt was not a star of silent cinema and had converted from being Jewish”), and considering that the now imploding sack might lead the cemetery’s entry guards to mistake me for a crazy terrorist (a terrorist crazy enough to have hatched a plan to kill already-dead icons), I instead settled for a bench facing an art deco elementary school with a tower-scale chimney, praying to all the gods I know, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Cultural, as I chawed my pudding after peeling the almond slivers off the paper, that the ideals represented by the school’s marquee won’t go up in smoke as thick as that spouting from the chimney tower:

Ecole Primaire Voltaire.

Ils sont tous les enfants de le République.

PS: If you don’t have the means and/or the celebrity to make it into Pere Lachaise (with the appetizing possibility that an obsolete necrofrancophiliac journalist might one day be dining on your grave and asking you for advice) — not to mention the massive carbon imprint your final flight would leave if you’re not lucky enough to die in France (clin d’oeil — and test to see if she’s really hanging, so to speak, on my every word — to CD), here’s an alternative that would please even my journalistic god Jessica Mitford. (And one that’s apparently even greener than Pere Lachaise, not-so-incidentally the largest patch of green in Northeast Paris.)

The Lutèce Diaries, One: Paris, quelques choses que je sais sur elle (Paris, a few things I know about her)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

PARIS — The dirt-encrusted brown calves and bare feet slowly wriggling up out of the mound of aromatic detritus behind the green fences overlooking the debut of the Canal St.-Martin and the irritation in my throat suggested that if mayor Anne Hidalgo has good intentions, pollution and living conditions — at least for the poor and wretched in the latter case — may have deteriorated since my last sojourn here in 2016. N’empeche que there was still Sarah Bernhardt to welcome me at Austerlitz.

I first ‘met’ the Divine Sarah during the Met’s Belle Epoch exhibition in 1982, even if I didn’t know that the thin woman with the piercing eyes — enveloped in a fur scarf and a skin-tight velour dress, luxuriating on a velvet divan with a submissive but wary panther at her feet — who peered out with a come-hither look from the poster I’d procured was the greatest actress ever. Even if the image subsequently starred on all my walls, it wasn’t until I moved into a third-story walk-up on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix had reigned before Carly Simon recorded Anticipation and became my first crush with “You’re so Vain,” and around the corner from where Robert Joffrey bunked up with Gerard Arpino; Joffrey’s portrait was still visible in the window, and Arpino, already relocated with the ballet company to Chicago, had told me he would be “delighted, Darling” to discuss the possibility of my renting the pad) that I discovered the identify of my companion when I saw the same poster — from a painting by Bernhardt’s pal George Clarion — peering out from the cover of a paperback left in the tenants’ communal garbage area: A biography of Sarah Bernhardt by one of her theatrical descendants, the Broadway stalwart Cornelia Otis Skinner. Later I’d score a recording of Sarah from the soundtrack of a WW I propaganda film in which, after allowing, “Forgive them G-d, they know not what they do,” she viciously lashes out at the Germans, and still later happen upon an exhibition devoted to her relics at the Bibliotheque National’s musty quarters on the rue Richelieu, up the street from the Moliere fountain where a lion vainly spouts out undrinkable water. Finally, hurrying up the Boulevards La Chapelle, Rouchechouart, and Clichy towards the Montmartre Cemetery with an urgent need one Saturday morning in 2004, I’d spot a sign for a garage sale where I ultimately scored Bernhardt’s personal mirror, encadred by cherry wood with encrusted abalone shells no doubt fabricated in one of the ateliers along the rue St.-Honoré.

And there she was again Sunday night– the same exact image from the Clarion painting whose poster has accompanied me for 37 years (now so torn up I had to leave it at home for this last trip) — on a rotating pillar ad for the Paris Museums at the bottom of the ramp connecting the Austerlitz train station with the Metro. (The original is now at the Musée Petite Palais along the Seine.) As I was expecting a somewhat different reception (“I’m a New Yorker; fear’s my life” — Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”), it was a good omen.

But Paris is not only the heritage of Bernhardt and the redemptive elegance of a courtesan become deity, a life journey crowned by a funeral in which tens of thousands crushed together along the Grands Boulevards (streets memorialized by another French Jew, Camille Pissarro) to follow the 1923 procession from her theater on the Seine to an oblong tomb at Pere Lachaise (where a certain Ex-pat journalist would later be chastised by an ersatz tourist guide for nibbling his croissant on the rim while in deep conference with his most famous guardian angel — “In France, we don’t dine on graves”; never mind that the doyenne in question didn’t know Bernhardt from Bara, having just explained to her clients that the former had been a star of the silent screen). It is also the heritage of Zola, only instead of Gervaise — the tragic heroine of “L’Assommoir,” named after the homemade gin joint on the Boulevard La Chapelle that proves her downfall — curling up in the niche under a stairwell which is the only home she can still afford, making my walkabout du retour yesterday, from digs in le prè St.-Gervais to the Grands Boulevards, after turning onto the Canal St.-Martin off La Chapelle and turning my head towards a heap of reeking garbage sequestered behind a cluster of the still-omnipresent green construction fences I saw the garbage suddenly begin to move and wretch up the pair of squirming legs. A cursory examination indicated more living African bodies coming to life among the festering refuse. Sickened, I turned down the canal towards Le Valmy, the bar-resto that for years was my other shrine (this one of the living), where I was heartened to find Momo, my original bartender from 2001, still holding forth at the wine bistro next door. The last time I’d seen Momo was shortly after the November 13, 2015 terrorist massacre that took the lives of 130 people, many of them mowed down on the brasserie terraces where Momo reigned, a contemporary deity of Parisian life. Smoking a clope while looking out over the canal, he had been clearly distraught. “Des cons,” he pronounced, shaking his head before tossing the butt and returning to the bar. Missing him during my 2016 visit, I’d assumed he hadn’t had the courage to continue in the milieu, now wounded. So even if he has less hair and I have less teeth, I was delighted to find Momo back at his perch. When I asked him yesterday if things had calmed down since the attacks, he answered, finishing his spaghetti, “A bit,” only now there’s the troubles around the so-called yellow-vests and their clashes with already over-taxed police. (“Macron will never resign,” Momo told the barista he was dining with. “A president never resigns.”) If some of their claims are just, particularly those of the retired people like my neighbors in the Southwest of France who find it difficult to make ends meet on fixed incomes *not* indexed to inflation, I was reminded this morning, when the radio news reported that one of the movement’s more law-breaking inclined leaders is also the president of a car club vaunting ’80s models (French DJs are also inexorably hooked on the epoch’s top-10 music), that in the end for these self-proclaimed rebels whose cause has been fueled more by media hype than real popular numbers — their revolt has nothing to do with that espoused by Camus, even if the father of pro-active Existentialism did give personal names like “Desdemona” to his cars, as his recently-released letters to his lover the actress Maria Casarés reveal, and died in one — it’s all about retrograde resistance by worshippers at the shrine of the automobile to cleaning up the air before it’s too late. (The yellow vest in question is required wear for automobilists because it glows in the dark.) This is Anne Hidalgo’s fight and Emmanuel Macron’s fight — these are the luddites they’re up against — which is why I’m on their side. I just pray that the former succeeds in cleaning up the air of all of Paris — she’s noted that 45,000 die of pollution every year in France — and that Macron succeeds in fulfilling his promise that in France, no one, of any color, should be living on the streets. Or sleeping in garbage piles. Shortly after crossing the Peripherique from Pantin to Paris — my neck bundled up in three home-made scarves, my Paris hair-cut head covered in beret and sailor’s cap, and my gams retrieving their Saturday Night Fever stride (“You can tell by the way I move”), as I headed towards the cabinet of my dentist pledged to restore my teeth and smile before he heads off into the sunset (taking with him the poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs, a sign of the doctor’s Franco-American heritage), sequestered behind more green fences I came across a municipal employee sawing up Christmas trees so that they could be made into fertilizer, instead of just being discarded. Here’s hoping that the lost lives can be recycled too.

Strasbourg Night Fever: When dancing was crazy and dancers were drowned

Strasbourg Dance Fever Durer“We’re cursed by these sick people who won’t stop dancing.” Thus complained the poet Sebastien Brant shortly after July 1518, when, as the scholar Elisabeth Clementz puts it — in the press packet for 1518, the Dance Fever, running through February 20 at Strasbourg’s Museum of the Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Arts of the Middle Ages — “the city of Strasbourg was confronted with a curious public health problem. Some 50 people began dancing in the streets until they were worn out. For the 21st century observer, the symptoms of this sickness, referred to as ‘St-Vitus’s Dance’ or ‘chorée,’ might seem strange. In reality, the term ‘St.-Vitus’s Dance’ (or ‘St.-Guy’s Dance’) was applied to numerous illnesses. For some, it was a matter of epilepsy…. [for] others… encephalitis. By the 17th century, Thomas Sydenham was describing it as a neurologic phenomenon. For the 19th century psychiatrist Witkowski, the woman who started the dancing was ‘subject to nervous attacks.’ With several other hysterics of the city, she dragged along with her children, the feeble-minded, the lazy, the vagabonds, and the imposters. Witkowski claimed there were numerous contemporary testimonies to the incident. But this was a myth.” Above: Albrecht Durer, “Dancing couples falling in a river as punishment for their disrespectful attitude during God’s Fete,” engraving pulled from Hartman Schedel, “Nuremberg Chronicle,” Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 1493. Folio CCXVII recto. Strasbourg, Prints and Drawings Cabinet. Photo: Strasbourg Museums, Mathieu Bertola. Click here for more art from the exhibition.

Dance cries the beloved Strasbourg

Strasbourg La-Mort-dansant_MOND-300_mb_01_resultatFrom the exhibition 1518, la fièvre de la danse, running at the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame – Arts du Moyen Âge in Strasbourg through February 24: “La Mort dansant,” circa 1520, wood polychrome sculpture. Strasbourg, Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame. Photo: Musées de Strasbourg, Mathieu Bertola.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 8: Ghosts in the Machine or, Hallucinating in Montmartre

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy,
tous les garçons et les filles
Juliette Greco
Jeanne Moreau
and Catherine Deneuve
and I’m walking with Eric Satie
along the boulevards of Paris….”

–Malcolm McLaren, “Paris”

“Ce soir
Le vent qui frappe a ma porte
Me parle des amours morte.”

–Charles Trenet, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

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I was sipping a Pelforth Brune on the terrace of “Le Refuge,” atop the stairs facing the Art Nouveau entry to the Lamarck-Caulaincourt Metro up the hill from Toulouse-Lautrec’s old studio, ogling a full-page photo of the 20-year-old Juliette Greco, seductively svelte in an ankle-length skin-tight black velour dress and leaning on the wall outside the Club Taboo, her oval eyes looking up at  Roger Vadim as he lit her cigarette, in the black booklet that came with the boxed Philips set “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, l’age d’Or” that I’d just scored for 250 francs at the comics store across the street, where it shared the window with books recounting the legends of the scoundrels and saloon singers of the Montmartre d’autrefois. (I always recognized the shop by the obsolete blue “Philips” shingle which cast its shadow on the window; the electronics boutique it advertised — like Jean-Pierre Leaud spinning hot wax into vinyl in the Philips factory while dreaming of Marie-France Pisier in “Antoine & Colette,” François Truffaut’s contribution to the omnibus production “Love at 20,” the second of the five films in which Leaud portrayed Truffaut’s child of Montmartre Antoine Doinel – had long moved on.) Four records jammed with songs and interviews of and with Boris Vian, his Montmartre neighbor and fellow Pataphysician Jacques Prevert, Greco (and her lover Miles Davis – “I didn’t know he was Black…. And when I found out he was Black, I cried.”), and other lost children of the Occupation. (Greco fled to Paris as a 16-year-old Montpellier girl living in Bergerac, where her mother had been arrested for hiding British officers, and was quickly picked up by the Gestapo with her older sister, a  member of the Resistance, before being released and adopted by Sartre and his set; he even wrote a song for her, “The Street of White Coats.”) I’d just come from Studio 28 – the cinema where “Amelie” goes to the movies, with the triangular multi-color aluminum chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau – and seeing a lanky Yves Montand get lost in a fairy-tale Montmartre bestiary after missing the last Metro at Barbes in Marcel Carné’s 1947 “Les portes de la nuit,” in which the Italian-born crooner introduced Prévert’s “Les feuilles mortes.” (You know it as “Autumn Leaves.”) The olive-skinned gamine with the oval face dominated by large Greco-like cat eyes and bronzed curved calves under a cobalt dress with pink roses at the table next to me slammed her cell phone down in a huff and declared, in English, “Some people, their psychology is so complicated!”

Parisians and particularly Parisiennes can seem notoriously cold, but there is sometimes a grace period on the part of those freshly arrived from ‘the provinces,’ their cheeks still flush with country air, their hearts with meridional temperament. Maureen, the gamine of 22 who’d instantly made of me a confident, had just installed herself in Paris to make her life as an actress; at the moment she was interpreting telemarketing scripts at night to pay her rent in a seventh-floor sardine-can-sized walk-up maid’s chamber on the rue Ramey below the rue Chevalier de la Barre that encircled the backside of Sacre Coeur, named after the pre-Revolutionary teenager who’d had his tongue cut out and his hands cut off before he was burned at the stake for refusing to doff his cap and chanting impudent ditties at a procession of religious notables. (I knew this because *after* the Revolution, the French — for whom sanctification often follows vilification — had put up a statue of the Chevalier in a square under the shadow of Sacre Coeur, itself built as penance by the Communards of 1871, and where a Monuments of Paris citation from Voltaire explained his history. Later, I’d go there to watch the July 13 fireworks rain over the Eiffel Tower.) On this late August afternoon under a mellow Sun that turned her Midi tan (like Greco before her, Maureen came from Montpellier) to gold and melted my heart, she was complaining, “He thinks because I slept at his house, suddenly I am his girlfriend. And then there is the other one, who even though I shared his bed doesn’t notice me and cries to me about his problems with other girls,” pronouncing this last word in a way that revealed her own frailty.

Already, that Maureen was from Montpellier made me nostalgic. Earlier that summer, I’d found myself strolling down what (white) locals had warned me was the most dangerous street in town behind Marta y Marta, two young and dazzling, respectively brunette and blonde, string-bean skinny and curvy Spanish businesswomen in town to bone up on their French, one in a form-fitting short creamy white dress, the other in hip-hugging black slacks. Suntanned and cast by Almodovar, as they carried my DJ valise between them – we were headed towards La Chapelle, a church in the gypsy section of town which had been converted into an underground artists’ scene — they drew the gazes of all the swarthy men lining both sides of the street. (“The eyes have it” I’d thought, flashing back to the coded signal my African-American friend Sheila and I had agreed upon during a high-school exchange trip to Israel whenever the Israelis on a bus started staring at us. “Roots” had just been broadcast in the country, and it was common for the Black members of our delegation to be taunted with “Kunte-Kinte” and “Kizzie.”) In my hippy-chic Carhardt overalls, I wasn’t sure who was protecting who. (If I believed that protection was necessary, it was only because as a newbie in France, I wasn’t yet aware that when some French white people told you an area was dangerous, they meant it was French Arab.)

I listened to Maureen, enraptured, as if she’d materialized on cue to help me create my own made-to-order Montmartre fairy tale, and secured a dinner date for sushi on the rue des Abbesses, the main drag in lower Montmartre, for later in the week. She was 22, I was 40, and from her continuing to unburden herself about her two boyfriends, particularly the one who didn’t seem to notice her even when she lay in bed beside him, I assumed I was hors de combat as romantic material and had been consigned to ‘friend,’ and thus didn’t offer to pay for her. This self-interestedness blinded me to the fact that Maureen obviously was poor, later confirmed when she jumped the subway turnstile — her over-sized army surplus jacket accentuating her smallness as she furtively glanced around to make sure the coast was clear — on her way home after we’d scaled the steep stairways of Montmartre to the Butte, stopping before the window of the Bateau Lavoir, where Cubism had been created, so I could pay my respects to Max Jacob and Picasso, who like  Cocteau and Jacob’s other pals would fail to save the Surrealist poet from being picked up by the Gestapo and slated for deportation after he was ratted out by neighbors. Jacob, who’d converted to Christianity three decades earlier and had been writing proselytory poems for his comrades ever since, succumbed to pneumonia at Drancy after asking for a priest. (On the Butte itself, where faux artists sat before half-finished pre-fabricated canvasses – not far from where Gene Kelly had hawked his on a side-street in “American in Paris” — and aggressive caricaturists paraded with their sketchpads competing for gullible tourists, the few remaining ancients swore that on a foggy night, after the tourists cleared out, you could still hear Utrillo, soused on cheap jug red, arguing with his mom Suzanne Valadon and her lover Felix Utter behind the shutters of their house on the narrow rue Rustique.)

We made a date to see Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” on the rue Christine, at an art house cinema across the street from the former site of the Taboo, after I’d answered Maureen’s “Will it afraid me? Because I don’t like scary movies!” with assurances that the film would not. (As bad date idea films go, this was not my worse. Later I’d take an American girl to the Studio 28 to see Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” in which Greco plays a member of a motorcycle gang, after asking her to meet me in front of Truffaut’s tomb at the Montmartre cemetery, which is covered with notes seeking the dead director’s advice; “Did you know the cemetery features in four of the five Antoine Doinel films?” Don’t look back.) Maureen stood me up. When I called her she said she’d fallen asleep. Remaining obdurate — it didn’t even occur to me that she might be exhausted from working the telephone every night from four to midnight, no doubt on commission — I wouldn’t let it go. “I told you, I fell asleep!! What more do you want me to say??!! Oh, que tu peut être bête!” I was in effect seeing Maureen through past burns. Our dynamic – my courting someone who wasn’t romantically available — reminded me of my relationship with Piper, a recovering NYU film student, generation Spike Lee and Basquiat (she resembled Annabelle Scioria, who played the prodigy painter’s girlfriend in the Julian Schnabel film), whom I’d met at a San Francisco psychology clinic where we both worked as editors, and who was ultimately too damaged to enter into a relationship, particularly with someone as smitten and eager to please as I was. They had the same pout, the same small but smoldering stature, the same brooding upper lip, and what I mistook for the same moldering wound. (Piper’s affliction had something to do with a regretted immersion in the seamy NY club netherworld of the late 1980s. I’d been so intimidated by her beauty that at one date, as I masticated my steamed monk-fish, tongue-tied, she’d stopped eating, looked at me and declared, “You know, my shit stinks too.”)

On our last date, I couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to dine while Maureen refused to eat. (Later, I realized that this was because she didn’t have any money and knew she couldn’t rely on me to pay for her.) We’d started out at “The Stolen Glass,” an organic wine resto (making it one of the quarter’s first Bobo outposts) on the rue des Vinaigres off the Canal Saint-Martin that a couple of vivacious blonde Algerian sisters had turned me on to during my first Paris visit, and that I’d promised had chic music. (I may have been confounding the resto’s ambiance with that of Favela Chic, the club off the Place de la Republique where the sisters and I had later danced that Halloween 2000 night away to the strains of Alpha Blondy, the most famous reggae singer in France, their blonde curls twirling as wildly as the smock of my black and white dashiki, scored eight years earlier as a non-comformist way to comply with the dress code for San Francisco’s Black and White Ball, to which I’d taken an ex-girlfriend with whom I finished the night mambo-ing to a live and sweating Tito Puente, wiping his septuagenarian  brow with one hand and pummeling his timbale with the other. It was also Anne who would initiate me to Charles Trenet, long before the original French crooner sent me shivering into tears by asking “What remains of our old loves?” to accompany the “Stolen Kisses” of Leaud and Claude Jade in the eponymous fourth Doinel film. Sometimes I think I should convene all my exes – particularly the dead one, as ghosts seem to have more power over me —  to deliver me to the real ame-soeur who’s waiting for me, like Jade and Pisier patching things up between Leaud’s Antoine and Dorothée’s Sabine in “Love on the Run,” the climax of the Doinel cycle.)  “It’s just a radio,” Maureen objected after we’d peeked in. So we crankily meandered around the entire Right Bank of Paris, following the canal down to Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre (in New York, I could spend half an hour at the Met contemplating this painting, which had nurtured my Paris fantasies), then walking down the rue Saint-Denis past the over-aged, over-fed whores selling wares which even Henry Miller would have rejected as too decrepit had he strayed from Clichy, then back over to the plaza of the Pompidou museum, only stopping to take a rest at the Stravinsky Fountain, interrupted when Nikki de Saint-Phalle’s buxom mermaid spurted water at us from a generous nipple. After wiping off her cheeks with her sleeve, Maureen looked up at the mermaid and taught me a new phrase, “Je hallucine,” literally, “I’m hallucinating.” After she explained that this could express both shock (at an exorbitant check) or awe (at drop-dead beauty), I put the term to immediate use to signify how pretty I thought she was, “Je hallucine’ing” her all the way to Nicholas de Floch’s 14th-century boarding house in the Marais, whose foyer had been converted into an upscale restaurant. “It’s the oldest house in Paris,” Maureen explained, pointing up at three wobbly stone stories which threatened to precipitate themselves on us at any moment and bury us in the past for good. “Je hallucine!” She crossed her arms,  thrust her head at me, opened those big eyes rageously and exclaimed, “It’s not fair, we speak French all the time, and I need to learn English for my acting! You must teach me.”

On the rue des Rosiers, when I asked, “Isn’t this the Jewish neighborhood?” (this was before Goldberg’s delicatessen, the Kosher bakeries, and the Hebrew bookstores were supplanted by generic clothing chains, global commerce finishing off what the Nazis had started),  she corrected me, “Now it’s been taken over by the gays,” going on to tease me with, “Maybe that’s why you like it.” I sulked — we were both getting ornery for want of eating. We finally settled on a tourist trap near Les Halles, where I downed a gummy steak au soupy roquefort with a Leffe which taught me that not all Belgium beers are created equal, and Maureen answered my mouthfully pronounced interrogation “You sure you don’t want anything?” by shaking her head and looking towards the Seine, a silent Nadja. Then I made like Breton as we hoofed it towards the Pont Royal, except that instead of hanging on my every word like Breton’s heroine in the eponymous book, Maureen seemed more interested in the ripples of the Seine reflecting the lights of the Bateaux Mouches. I tried to switch from channeling Breton to shadowing Camus when we got to the pont, but it still didn’t work. Rather than the moral question that had obsessed the narrator of “The Fall” after he failed to dive in to save a girl who’d leaped from the bridge, I found myself wondering if Maureen would jump into my arms if I saved her from jumping into the river.

The next time I heard from Maureen was on September 11, 2001. (Finally deciding that she was another Piper, I’d not called her.)  From my digs below Montmartre at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire once conjured hashish-induced phantoms while Gauthier took notes and around the corner from where Theo once pointed out the Notre Dame de Lorette church to Vincent Van Gogh as the brothers headed to the Boulevard Montmartre to try to sell  his paintings to Goupil) I’d moved to another sublet in the Cité Falguiere (where a naked Kiki de Montparnasse had modeled for Soutine as she dodged fleas falling from the ceiling) next to the Pasteur Institute, where AIDS had been identified, and up the hill from the Montparnasse brasserie on the rue Delambre where Fitzgerald had encountered Hemingway for the first time. (I found a place that seemed to correspond with the address, but it had likely changed hands so many times I instead settled for the – for me – more recent epoch evoked by a bar across the street, “Smoke,” after the Wayne Wang ode to Brooklyn, in the sequel to which, “Blue in the Face,” Lou Reed declares: “Everyone says they’re leaving New York. I’ve been leaving New York for 35 years,” and proceeded to do something that even Lou Reed could not legally do in Brooklyn, lighting up my first Cuban, scored from a tobacconist’s next to Le Dome, and telling the Wayne Wang-lookalike bartender, “I can’t do this in the United States.”) One afternoon, after looking out the window of my seventh-floor apartment at an Eiffel Tower that seemed so close I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen airplanes circling around it like the ones besieging King Kong atop the Empire State (such transpositions of time, place, and dimension are chronic to the bourlingueur), I opened up my e-mail box to find a message from one of my magazine’s New York critics announcing, “We are under attack.” So I was distracted when Maureen called. “I just heard what happened and I wanted to call to say that I hope your friends and family are all right.” Forever obtuse, I didn’t realize that Maureen was reaching out to re-connect — not so easy for a French person — so when she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you, I’m sure you have things to do to see that everyone is all right, I just wanted to tell you that I am thinking good thoughts for you,” I let her vanish and join the other phantoms of my life, preferring to deal with concrete yet remote terrorism rather than ford the unfathomable fears of my own heart, slowly being subsumed by ghosts.  I called her once a few months later but did not hear back. For years afterwards, I would think of Maureen as I walked past Le Refuge on solitary midnight Christmas Eve Montmartre rambles, heading up to Erik Satie’s old flat on the rue Cortot so I could revel in the melancholy with my ghosts to the imagined accompaniment of “Les Gymnopedes,” a would-be acrobat of love — hadn’t I come to Paris to find la femme de ma vie? — grounded by a fear of flying

D.O.A.: Le Riche Kills “Carmen,” Sucks the Life out of “The Young Man and Death”

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — April 1946: “One Spring evening, I went to the rue Monpensier to knock on the door of Jean Cocteau to, once again, ask for his help,” Roland Petit recalls in “I have Danced on the Waves.” (Editions Grasset, 1993; cited in the Paris Opera Ballet program.) With Boris Kochno, Petit, just 22 — he would go on to become France’s greatest choreographer of the second half of the 20th century, rivalled only by Maurice Bejart — was preparing for the second season of the Ballets des Champs-Elysees. The two didn’t want to lose any momentum after a sensational debut season. Who better to conjure up a new scenario for their grand dancer, Jean Babilee, than their “grand magician friend”? Cocteau had just emerged from his bath. Covered in towels except for his face and hands, he proceeded to improvise “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” dancing the story with his hands. On June 25, 1946 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, swathed in Karinska’s simple costumes and amidst Georges Wakhevitch’s simultaneously stark and marvelous sets, to music by Bach chosen at the last instant — they had rehearsed to jazz records and later accented piano rhythms* — Babilee and his equally young wife, Nathalie Philippart, took the stage in the title roles of what would become the first important French ballet of the post-war era…..

(To receive the complete article — which considers the above ballet’s reprise by the Paris Opera Ballet’s Nicolas Le Riche and Marie-Agnes Gillot as well as the video record of a 1962 revival with Jean Babilee and Claire Sombert — first published on July 15, 2005, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)