Lutèce Diaries, 4: Diary of a disabused critic / Journal d’un critique désabusé or why I stood up /pour quoi j’ai posé un lapin à Agnes Varda & Sandrine Bonnaire

people on sunday twoUrban pastorale: A scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Française as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.

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 — So there I was at the hour of the crepuscule Wednesday, standing on a bridge linking the Ile de Cité to the Left Bank and contemplating the nascent twilight reflected in the Seine, when I realized that the ping-pong table in the sculpture garden above the Tino Rossi tango plaza where two kids were battling each other and the bracing gusts of freezing wind was much more compelling than the date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire that awaited me at the Cinematheque Française further down the river. And that I’d have much more chance of finding ‘l’ame-soeur’ sitting on a bench with my rackets (the same with which I’d placed second city-wide for my age group in 1973; a puny nine-year-old from San Francisco’s Chinatown beat me for the championship with spin-balls I couldn’t touch — seeing “Forrest Gump” recently had inspired me to bring the paddles with me to Paris, only I brought two, because unlike Tom Hanks I’m still searching for my playmate) than sitting in a darkened movie theater, which I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been playing ping-pong but scoring much less often. But it wasn’t just this micro-epiphany that decided me to head up towards the Bastille (after a tour of the bouquiniste stands on both sides of the Seine highlighted by an animated debate with an elegant silver-haired and bearded bookseller in an ankle-length fur coat whose proudest offering was a shrine to Celine amply furnished with his oeuvre and articles arguing that he was not so anti-Semitic as that) rather than turning right towards Bercy.

This abrupt change of plans — just that afternoon I’d joked to my dentist, “If you can keep the blood to a minimum this time, that would be great, as I’ve a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire” — was also provoked by a malaise over the institutional art scene and its promotion that’s been festering in me for a long time. From New York to Paris, I’ve been frustrated the past several years by an art programmation in which, at least on the level of the major museums, cinematheques, and theaters, the last curatorial consideration has been what should be the first, namely mining the archives and nooks and crannies for artistic treasures and exposing them to a broader public.

Take the Agnes Varda retrospective which was the reason for my invitation to the Cinematheque soirée. I should have been delighted that the Cinematheque was feting a pioneer who deserves to be celebrated. But cinema history excavation-wise, the choice was unintrepid. Who doesn’t already know about Agnes Varda? Why not *also* program a retrospective of the directorial work of Maya Deren? Or the work in front of and behind the camera of Ida Lupino, without whom there might not have been an Agnes Varda? (And one of whose early films, “A Rainy Afternoon,” set in Paris, belies what I said about the impossibility of meeting someone in a darkened theater. If I thought there was a chance that Ida Lupino was waiting for me, I’d make every screening.) So I was ecstatic when I discovered that a Lupino film starring one of her chou-chous, Sally Forrest — with a dance theme yet! — had been restored for presentation at the Museum of Modern Art. I know this because I’ve been following, and covering, MoMA for nearly 25 years. Before the veteran Margaret Doyle left its press office, MoMA not only appreciated, but courted our coverage. After she left, I’m so devoted to this New York City — and Modern Art — institution that I even got over the fact that MoMA’s advertising director couldn’t be bothered to respond when we offered her a special deal on promoting the museum’s current Judson retrospective on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager. The press manager I’d been dealing with was happy with the extended Judson coverage we nonetheless pursued, in which we coupled art from the exhibition with articles by the late Jill Johnston, Judson’s Boswell.

Unfortunately, my efforts to promote MoMA’s Lupino restoration were sabotaged by an inexperienced publicist, who responded to my request for a screener of the film — *forwarded to her by her manager I’ve been working with and who, judging by the assiduous manner in which she hounds me for coverage, is familiar with our magazine’s reputation and reach* — by asking “what outlet” I was writing for. I don’t necessarily expect a green flack to be already versed in the diverse media landscape she’s getting paid to promote her artists on. But if you don’t know, before you risk insulting and alienating the very colleagues you’re supposed to be cultivating, *you ask.* When Richard Philp suddenly promoted me to news editor of Dance magazine in 1995 after my predecessor Joseph H. Mazo died before he could learn me the landscape, I was pretty dance-ignorant, so if I didn’t know who an artist was, I walked across the hall and *asked* Richard, the late great Gary Parks, the ibid Marion Horosko, or Harris please write home all is forgiven Green *before I talked to the artist.* Why embarrass what was then a trusted institution with my dance-stupidity? This MoMA publicist, by contrast, has managed with one ill-considered, ill-reflected letter — and her subsequent refusal to apologize — to destroy 25 years of goodwill her predecessors (and the quality of what they were promoting), notably Margaret Doyle and Paul Jackson, had built up with a veteran editor. (I considered deleting this mini-rant because I know it sounds petty, and why give them the free publicity they have contempt for anyway? But besides the convenient segué this item provides to the next screed, art is too important for its propagation among the audience it really belongs to be sabotaged by one publicist. Recognize your error, and all will be forgiven.)

jack lemmon

I love you Jack (Lemmon, in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Francaise), but after five New Year’s Eves, I’m tired of looking at your puss and ready for something new, even if it’s 30 years older. (Photo courtesy Cinematheque Francaise.)

At the Cinematheque Française, by contrast, my issue is not with the Comm team — impeccably professional, even when dealing with mercurial, disabused critics — but with a programmation which ever since the departure of director Peter Scarlett 15 years ago seems to be determined more by box office considerations than curatorial imperatives, which latter should be modeled (to cop the marching orders former Village Voice editor Elizabeth Zimmer used to issue to her acolytes) on the quest of the truffle hunter, determined to unearth priceless, buried treasures with a nose for genuine cinematic news. There has been a real jewell playing at the Cinematheque this month, but it’s been buried in yet another festival dedicated to an American director everyone’s already heard about. I have nothing against Billy Wilder — “The Apartment” has been my go-to-film on many a solitary New Year’s Eve — but do we really need to see “Some Like it Hot” — which opened the retrospective — an umpteenth time? The truffle here, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 restored silent film “People on Sunday,” which got in because Wilder wrote the screenplay, is buried in one Friday afternoon screening (today at 3:30) which only old fogey cinema junkies who already know about it will think to and be able to see. And yet it’s the far more transformative, provocative film. If I watch “The Apartment” every year, it’s for the same reasons — after the first time anyway — that Jack Lemmon’s hero spends his evenings, as he puts it, with Mae West and John Wayne. It’s good company. It comforts me in what I already know or aspire to: The dynamic, droll doll eventually drops the married cad for the loveable, earnest, devoted, clumsy, awkward, lonely and somewhat homely bachelor.

“People on Sunday,” by contrast, is a troubling film — particularly in the current social context in France and around the world. If the premise — four young Berliners out for a Sunday pastoral; or Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and the complicated but ultimately classic romantic alliances, ruptures, and petites jealousies that ensue as they frolic from beach to forest — must have seemed primordially bucolic at the time, the questions the film poses post-Holocaust are disturbing, and even interrogate this very moment we’re living in France. In one prolonged segment, Siodmak introduces a panoply of smiling Germans out fully profiting from their Sunday, in soccer matches, on park benches reading newspapers under monuments, etcetera… Falling in love with this innocence I found myself asking: How could these loving and outgoing people have voted in that fascist government just three years later and committed that atrocity in the decade that followed? (And whether the young brunette actress I fell in love with ended up being among those who paid the price.) Yet that fascist government and that atrocity were born in exploitation of a social unrest not unlike that now troubling France (it had the same sources: financial instability and insecurity, with the same, if up to now minority, tendency to blame the stranger). As a foreigner, as a Jew, and as an intellectual who treasures the liberal values that France at its best embodies, I’m scared shitless. Those who counter that “It can’t happen here” need to watch this film, if only to be reminded that if it could happen so quickly — to a people so evidently joyful, carefree, admirable, lovely, extraverted, outgoing, and loving as the people shown in this movie, yes, it can happen here.

people on sunday oneRedemption song: Another scene from Robert Siodmak’s and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1930 silent film “People on Sunday,” recently restored and playing this afternoon at the Cinematheque Francaise as part of its retrospective of the films of Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay.

(Rather than burying “People on Sunday” in a Wilder festival, were I running the Cinematheque’s programmation I’d have scheduled an entire retrospective around the films of Robert Siodmak, which have in common that they all terminate with some form of redemption: The disturbed killer Gene Kelly giving up his life to free his wife Deanna Durbin so that she can fully live hers in “Christmas Holiday”; Charles Laughton deciding — memorably, on the runway of a ship!, thus revealing that 20 years later, Siodmak hadn’t lost his knack for scene-setting — to take the consequences for killing his shrewd of a wife rather than join his new love, so that an innocent doesn’t pay for his crime; Burt Lancaster’s “Swede”‘s noble acceptance of his fate in Siodmak’s adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” And then there’s his sense of nuance: In “People on Sunday,” the full sensuality of the outdoor love scene — perhaps a first-love scene — that’s just transpired is suggested by the pensive, slightly perturbed manner in which the blonde heroine, abandoned, adjusts the strap of her dress, post-coitus.)

And it’s happened elsewhere more recently than 1933: Religious intolerance and outright barbarity produced Alep, the destruction of lives and the decimation of a millennium-old cultural legacy, and the potential loss of cultural memory and native pride this engenders. This is why I was initially delighted to learn of the Metropolitan Museum’s major exhibition of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s mid-19th century daguerreotypes taken during his voyages to Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, produced in collaboration with the Bibliotheque Nationale Française, opening January 30 and running through May 12. These breathtaking images — reflecting, Met photography curator Stephen C. Pinson points out in a lavishly illustrated catalog in which the oeuvres are re-produced in their original sizes, the concomitant births of the sciences of photography and archeology — are a voyage into a lost North Africa, rien a voir with Girault’s Orientalist contemporaries, even if he influenced their aesthetic and helped infuse it with some semblance of authenticity. If I already know this much, it’s because at the Met I was fortunate enough to encounter a publicist who went beyond the call of duty and, unrequested, sent me the PDF of the entire catalogue.

alep,” from monuments arabes d_egypte, de syrie et d_asie-mineure, 1846. lithograph by eugène cicéri (1813–1890) after girault“Alep,” from Monuments arabes d’Egypte, de Syrie et d’Asie-Mineure, 1846. Lithograph by Eugène Cicéri (1813–1890) after Girault, sheet 22 3/8 × 15 5/8 in. (56.9 × 39.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library Fund, 2017 (2017.66.7) Public domain image.

Unfortunately, the same catalog reminded me of the extent to which the Met has collaborated in refurbishing the image of those members of the Wexler family whose patronage of the Met is enabled by their investment in Perdu Pharma, largely responsible for the opiate addiction scourge which has taken tens of thousands of lives in the United States in recent years. Given the Met’s similar role in erecting the philanthropic image of the climate science-denying anti-Labor Koch Brothers, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but this reminder — Met director Max Hollein praises the Sacklers in his introduction to the catalog — makes it difficult for me to collaborate with the Met in promoting this exhibition. Instead, and again taking advantage of a proactive publicist who hopefully won’t regret that proactivity, I’ll take advantage — for Alep — of her sending me an image after one of Girault’s works on Alep. And since she told me I didn’t need to connect our use of this public domain image to the Met event — even requested I did not — I’ll instead use it to promote the Syria week-end March 9 and 10 at the Philharmonie here in Paris, promoted by another member of my Publicists Hall of Fame, Hamid si-Amer. Not just because he’s the coolest publicist in Paris — Hamid starts his e-mails with “Salut” and never terminates them with “Bien a vous” — but because of his impeccable professionalism.

MQB. Spectacle. White Spirit, Transe soufie et street-art. Du 6 au 15 novembre.Coming up at the Philharmonie in Paris: Whirling for Syria and Alep. Photo of Derviches tourneurs de Damas copyright Cyril Zannettacci and courtesy the Philharmonie.

Speaking  of whirling dervishes , the other epiphany I had while standing on that perch near Notre Dame watching those kids playing ping-pong is that like them I’d rather be outside, observing life and getting my material directly, than sitting in a dark theater and pondering someone else’s views of life to write about it later, particularly if this third-hand observing — my view of another’s view of life — requires running the gauntlet of sometimes indifferent publicists. I don’t know if my writing is up to my vision — I’ve been flying without an editor for 20 years — but this is at least what I’ll be attempting to do in the coming weeks, energy allowing. And given the life-affirming sensation that I get every time I walk out my door here in Paris and its surrounding suburbs, it will at least deliver light to me.

Several of these frescoes jumped up before my eyes as I headed home Wednesday evening (after the requisite watching of the Eiffel sparkling up), taking the Bastille before turning left onto the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir — Maigret territory — then right up Temple which turns into Belleville and down past the Buttes Chaumont and crossing the Paris/Pantin border. But given that I’ve already taken up enough of your time — too much of it in settling professional vendettas (in a non-too professional manner) — for now I’ll rest with one.

Midway to the rues de Temple/Belleville, where the same breed of nihilists who devastated Alep mowed down Noemie Gonzalez and too many others on the cafe terraces on November 13, 2015 (the memorials have disappeared from the terrace of “The Good Beer”; tant pis), and not far from where they murdered 80 insouciant, mostly young people at the Bataclan for loving music too much, a young woman was straddling a gymnastic bar over a patch of the strip of park that covers the canal all the way to Temple. Her legs trundling in the emptiness, propelling her forward nonetheless metaphysically speaking, her walkmanned head rolled side to side in joy as she sung the body electric.

Advertisements

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.

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

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.

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

Pompidou expo re-unites Picasso & Jacob

Pompidou Cubism Picasso Jacob

Among the 300 paintings, drawings, and historical documents on view at the Center Pompidou in Paris through February 25 for the exhibition Cubism are, left, Pablo Picasso, “Self-Portrait,” 1907. Oil on canvas, 56 x 46 cm. Narodni Galerie, Prague. Copyright the National Gallery, Prague, 2018. Copyright Succession Picasso 2018. And, right, Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Max Jacob,” 1907. Gouache on paper, 62.5 x 47.5 cm.  Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Copyright Rheinisches Bildarchiv Koln, Irouschek, Sonja, rba_c010921. Copyright Succession Picasso 2018. That the surrealist poet’s portrait hangs in a German museum is ironic; in February 1944, after none of his artist friends, including Picasso and Cocteau, were able to successfully intervene on his behalf (Cocteau tried, but didn’t talk to the right person; Sasha Guitry promised but did not come through), Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo after being ratted out by neighbors, dying of pneumonia in the Drancy way-camp before he could be deported. On his deathbed, Jacob — who had converted more than three decades earlier and regularly wrote proselytory poems for his friends — asked for a priest. “De vagues réverbères jettent sur la neige la lumière de ma mort.” (From “The Dice Cup.” To read Max Jacob’s poem on Fake News, click here.)

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.

Women aren’t just victims, 6: The Ciphers of Chantal — Corinne Rondeau Plunges into the “Akermanian Night,” now at the Cinematheque Française

chantal dis moi smallChantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

As an American who has always looked upon France as the Valhalla of Intellect and Reason, of Art and Culture, it’s been painful to hear the clarion call of Camus and Godard, of Dutronc and Brassens, of Pissarro and Cocteau, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, of Claude Cahun and Man Ray, of Renoir and Renoir, of Voltaire and Misia Sert almost entirely drowned out by the obsession with terrorism, Islam, and immigration which has dominated the public airwaves since the criminal massacre of 130 innocents on the café terraces and in the concert halls and stadiums of Paris and Saint-Denis of November 13, 2015. It’s as if, like their New York colleagues (Susan Sontag was a brave exception) after September 11, 2001 — witness the New York Times’s supine readiness to enable the Bush-Cheney chicaneries whenever the pendulum of “national security” was dangled before its eyes — French radio journalists have been infected with a kind of survivor’s syndrome which prevents them from analyzing events, be they cultural or civic, political or societal, outside of these paradigms. (Living in the East of Paris when and where the terrorists struck on November 13, I haven’t been immune to this syndrome, since that day often interpreting events through the prism of my own fears.) On Radio France’s putatively high-brow chain, France Culture, it’s gotten to the point where one is cumulatively more likely to hear the words Islam, immigration, terrorism, jihad, and their various derivatives than the words France and Culture, particularly on the news programs. The exceptions have been the world affairs program Culture Monde and Arnaud Laporte’s panel discussion “La Dispute,” which considers a different art form every evening. (Theater and dance Monday, music Tuesday, the plastic arts Wednesday, literature including comics Thursday, and film and t.v. series Friday, should you want to check it out, at 1 p.m. EST. Link below.) If all the knights and ladies of renaissance man Laporte’s critical round-table are informed, literate, engaged, and engaging — the best curating may be Laporte’s in choosing his team, over whose language he presides with the vigilance of a high school French teacher, making for a minimum of “voila”s — the intellectually exhilarating rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Corinne Rondeau’s.

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, exuding panache — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, Jean-Luc Godard, and Phillip Larkin, that criticism can be its own art form — Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had just published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou (whose previous book took on Sontag) on one of my cinematic 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 promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.

To read the complete article, please visit our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction by clicking here.