As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), “Chalk drawing,” New York, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/8 × 11 3/8 in. (18.2 × 28.8 cm), Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. © Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery Image. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.
From the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town through June 28: Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972), “Vukani II (Paris),” 2014. Gelatin silver print, 23 1/2 × 13 in. (59.7 × 33 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg. (For more beautiful black women on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, click here.)
I’ll just leave my dentures at the door of the studio, thanks: While we have no proof that the painting represented above, Félix Vallotton’s 1904 “Nude Holding Her Gown,” a 50 3/4 x 37-38 inch oil on canvas, is the one the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire — Cubism’s first literary champion — was referring to in the following review of Vallotton’s contributions to the Salon d’Automne in the October 12, 1907 issue of “Je dis tout” (I tell all), the indications, judging from the model’s height, stance, modest dipping of the head and above all pronounced overbite (take it from an expert) are pretty convincing: “Monsieur Vallotton, and we regret it, has not exposed the portrait of a Swiss woman, a tall protestant lady who absolutely insisted on removing her denture before posing: ‘It would not be honest to represent my teeth. In reality, I don’t have any. Those which garnish my mouth are false and I believe that a painter should only represent that which is true.'” (Speak for yourself, lady.) As for you, bub, you can check the original itself out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Madame will be holding court, teeth or no teeth, through January 26 as part of the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. Private collection. Photo © Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To read more about what happens when dental issues confront art head on (so to speak), click here. (Source of Apollinaire citation: Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), NRF / Gallimard, Paris. Copyright Librairie Gallimard.) — PB-I
Jean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)
“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019
PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?
To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.
From the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.
But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.
“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:
** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)
** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)
** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)
** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”
The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)
Johan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.
It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.
This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).
(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)
Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.
Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”
“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)
“I’m still interested.”
“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)
My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)
Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):
“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”
I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.
Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.
I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.
The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)
Who’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.
Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.
Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)
Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:
“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)
Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.
As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.
Recently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.
Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)
After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”
After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.
I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.
Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.
Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.
In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)
This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….
Urban 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
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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 on the rippling waves of 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.)
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.
Redemption 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, 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.
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.
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