THE LUTÈCE DIARIES, 16

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The Lutèce Diaries, 7: Out of the Box in Belleville, or the Gentle Art of Eating Diplomates without taking their skins off

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Careening around the streets and over the canals and rivers of Paris on his way to a heart operation he doesn’t know whether he’ll survive in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris,” Roman Duris lays down on the seat, looks up at the sky, and inveighs that most Parisians are so busy complaining, they don’t realize what they have. It’s this sense of emerveillement that I hope to bring to these dispatches and our new site The Paris Tribune, even if I’m not lucky enough to have Juliette Binoche as a sister and hundreds of women ogle my svelte form as I do my number at the Moulin Rouge…. (To read the full story and see more art on Paul Ben-Itzak’s new magazine The Paris Tribune, click here.)

Lutèce Diaries, 5: Somber times at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil — Robert Lepage’s “Kanata” or Why I won’t review Victim Art without the Victims

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(While today’s article is in English, all the linked articles are in French. 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. This one goes out to Polly, and to Lureeta Whitewing-Porter.)

PARIS — I was working as a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News (a job I’d accepted after watching too many episodes of Northern Exposure; it wasn’t until after arriving in Alaska that I learned the t.v. series was shot in Washington State) when I decided I was going to be the first to write about AIDS among Native Alaskans. It was 1990, and I’d already broken many AIDS stories nationally and internationally while working as a San Francisco-based correspondent for Reuters. My new paper, meanwhile, had won a Pulitzer for a series about alcoholism and suicide rates among the Natives. We ran an ad asking for someone from a village to come forward, guaranteeing anonymity. A social worker with the Alaska Native Health Service, Lureeta Whitewing-Porter, with whom I’d already collaborated on a story about a group of high school students from Nome who had created a play about AIDS, immediately called me up, alarmed: “You can’t do this story.” There was no such thing as anonymity in a Bush village of 150 people, she explained, and the person would be stigmatized. When I replied with the old liberal bromide that knowledge was power, she asked me (furnishing a reliable touchstone for my subsequent investigative journalism): “What is your intention?”

My editor pointed out that the paper had a reputation for covering the Native community with sensitivity, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning series. He didn’t realize what it had taken me only three months to understand: The Natives did not perceive that series in the same way, but rather as having stigmatized them as victims. At the time there was only one Native on the paper, and she had arrived after the alcoholism and suicide stories were published.

Well, Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage must have gone to the same school of paternalistic if well-meaning liberal thought as Pat Dougherty, my editor on the ADN, because despite vociferous First Nations protest over the lack of ANY indigenous people in her Theatre du Soleil’s production of his “Kanata,” which purports to tell the history of their persecution — up to and including the recent wave of murders and disappearances of indigenous women in the Canadian province of British Columbia — they’ve not only persisted, after an initial annulment, in opening the play December 15 at the Cartoucherie outside Paris, where it runs through February 15, but have incorporated the controversy into the play in a way which apparently makes Lepage come out as the victim. (I say ‘apparently’ because I have no desire to participate, even as an observer, in a play about victims which excludes the victims.)

Mnouchkine, a venerated icon of the alt theater Parisian scene for more than half a century, has compounded the problem by mounting the type of arrogant (the Western cultural maven knows best), dismissive defense that more typically comes from liberal than conservative quarters. Responding on the theater’s website to the question of whether she and Lepage are guilty of “cultural appropriation,” Mnouchkine insists:

“It’s impossible to appropriate something which is not and has never been a physical or intellectual property.” As if, coming from a purveyor of cultural heritages who should know better, this specious and intellectually lazy argument was not bad enough, she continues: “The stories of groups, or hoards, of clans, of tribes, of ethnicities, of peoples, of nations cannot be trade-marked, as some claim, because they all belong to the grand history of humanity….It’s this grand history which is the artist’s territory.” In other words, my artistic chops give me the right to harvest and macerate your story even if I don’t have any socially legitimate claim on it. (I should try this argument with the landowners who have put up “No mushroom-hunting” signs all over my corner of the Perigord — where 90% of forests are private — the next time I want to go looking for succulent cepes.) She goes on: “Cultures — all cultures — are our sources and, in a certain way, they’re all sacred. We must drink from therein studiously, with respect and recognition, but we cannot accept that we’re forbidden from approaching them….” To stick with the rural — and enological — analogies, following this principal I can make a wine tour of the Lot and break into any winery I want and grab as much of their hard-earned product as I want and if anyone protests, I’ll just answer, “I’m a critic, I have a right to use your food as my fodder.”

Voila a circumlocution more fitting to a dancer than an actor, because Mnouchkine skirts around the question, which is not one of forbidding access to a culture, but rather of excluding the very actors of that culture from your white, non-Indigenous attempt to represent it — and to appropriate it for your own purposes. In other words, even if the exclusion is one of omission rather than commission, you’re not only squatting their house, you’re locking them out of it.

To provide a counter, more appropriate model of cultural access, when I was in junior high school in San Francisco, I was invited — even recruited, as I recall — to participate in a production of a Langston Hughes poem-play directed by an African-American artist in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I was not made to feel that I had no standing or that I was a member of the oppressing class. Rather, I was treated as an American to whom this culture also belonged. The difference is that instead of me locking them out of their own house, they were not just inviting me into theirs, but telling me “We are all at home here.”

This is not what Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage, two white people, are doing in pretending to depict the tragedy of the First Nations without the participation of any First Nations people.

Ms. Mnouchkine’s defense — ”Culture cannot be owned by any one person, it belongs to everyone” — reminds me of another French liberal’s recent opposition to president Emmanuel Macron’s announced (and laudable) intention to return the estimated 80,000 objects of art pillaged from African countries during colonial times to their nations of origin. To the usual, patronizing argument that African countries don’t have the proper facilities to take care of and mount the art put forth by some art “experts,” the liberal radio commentator Sylvain Bourmeau added this one: Culture, he argued, belongs not just to the creator but the receiver, or audience. Outside of the Grateful Dead, which used to rope off a whole section of its concerts for “the tapers” — appropriate for a band which owed so much to the hippies — I can’t think of any Western artist or presenter who would accept an audient’s going to a play and stealing it. This argument is even more feeble in France, where the composers’ rights organization SACEM is quick to pounce on any restaurant, boutique, or barber-shop with the audacity to play a CD without buying the rights to do so. (On the France Culture critical round-table program La Dispute, another commentator offered an even more ludicrous defense than Mnouchkine’s: the multi-culti character of the Theatre du Soleil’s troupe. You seen one minority, you’ve seen them all….)

Speaking of appropriating, before now quoting copiously from Guiseppe Valiante’s article in the Quebecoise journal La Presse relaying how actual First Nations people feel about “Kanata,” I’ll give you the link where you can find the original French version, here .

The Inuit writer Maya Cousineau Mollen (Valiante reports), one of 30 First Nations artists and militants who met with Lepage last year and challenged him to convince them that an authentic Indigenous presence was not essential to assuring his account’s authenticity, travelled to Paris for the December premiere “with the hope that Robert Lepage had heard the critiques of indigenous artists. But she left the theater disappointed” and not at all convinced by the final result, which claims to represent the history of relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada. It also accentuates the focus on the fate of assassinated and missing Indigenous women in and around Vancouver in recent years. Mollen was particularly disturbed by a scene featuring the assassination of a young Indigenous woman by a character inspired by the serial killer Robert Pickton. “In part because of this ‘brutal and violent’ scene, the play would not have been as well-received in Western Canada as in Paris, according to Madame Cousineau Mollen,” Valiante notes.

But perhaps the most disingenuous element of this latest, post-contestation version of Lepage’s play is the way — in the guise of incorporating the controversy into the play — the author has twisted the question around so that he now not only excludes the very victims whose saga he purports to chronicle but poses as the victim. Or, as Valiante relates, “Guy Sioui Durand, a Huron sociologist and art critic, also flew to Paris” to check the show out first hand. “He didn’t appreciate the way that Lepage integrated into the piece a French artist who asks if she has the right to paint portraits of the murdered Indigenous women. ‘It’s as if,’ M. Sioui Durand explains in an interview, ‘in injecting the controversy into the play, Lepage and the theater are posing as the victims, via the (real) victims, these murdered and missing women.”

Mollen was invited to Paris by Gerty Dambury, a member of the collective Décoloniser les arts, based in the county of St.-Denis which borders Paris, and from which I’m writing you today. Speaking to Valiante, Dambury suggests that “for the French cultural milieu,” when the question of cultural appropriation is brought up, it’s treated as “communitarianism,” “indigenisme,” “racialism,” and censorship targeting “artistic liberty. This is very clear in (the defense of) Madame Mnouchkine.”

But — and as I noted earlier — it’s not a question of proscribing others from addressing their histories, but excluding the very people affected from these efforts. Or as a collective of First Nations artists and activists and their supporters pointed out in an open letter to the French artists participating in “Kanata” (and very sympathetic with the cast itself) and published in the Quebecoise daily Le Devoir just before the premiere put it:

“We’re always happy to welcome into our ranks — or even to serve the vision of — non-indigenous creators who see our history as an essentially human epic. In Canada and Quebec, among the Indigenous Nations, there’s a substantial pool of artists, of talents, and of varied expertises in the domaine of the arts and stage capable of meeting the most demanding artistic challenges, without even talking about the need of apprentisage and experiences for young people just starting out in artistic fields. We’re surprised that once again they’ve all been ignored, even by those who say they want to revisit the recent history of the First Nations people in their relationship with the colonial states.

“Today the winds are shifting, with more and more people calling into question the colonialist way of thinking which has for far too long served as a pretext to deny our right to speak for ourselves. Some arts financing institutions have initiated funding policies geared to enable us to stop being seen as simple objects of curiosity and nothing more. Nonetheless, we’re still too often marginalized by the major cultural instititutions, our voices being seen at times as too exotic, at times not exotic enough to meet the pre-conceptions of the cultural majority. And yet the authenticity which we harbor is our biggest asset, and we oppose — because it’s this that is our responsibility — aesthetic and folkloric counterfeits in which our people have been and still are seen as toys.

“For all these reasons we retain, before ‘Kanata,’ the sense of a missed opportunity.”

PS: Looking at the production photo which accompanies the open letter — see the link above — I see a more insidious issue here: It reminds me of those ’50s films in which Indian ‘squaws’ were usually depicted by gorgeous white babes — often Natalie Wood — in dark pancake make-up. The darker message conveyed was that real Indians weren’t pretty (or handsome; Rock Hudson, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff Chandler, or Robert Wagner would often play the brave) enough to play themselves.

Sunday Reading / Lecture de dimanche: “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished): Extract /Extrait from Chapter 1, ‘La petite fille dans la charrette aux poissons’ (The little girl on the fishmongers’ wagon) (English translation suivé de V.O. en française)

By Michel Ragon
Copyright Albin-Michel
Translation by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

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“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”

— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.

Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures. Eventually adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred later in “The Book of the Vanquished,” broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. The members of the notorious Bonnot Band of violence-prone anarchists whom Victor and Rirette welcome at the same time as they adapt Fred and Flora, and who will play a seminal role in launching Fred on the route to non-violent anarcho-syndicalisme — introduced later in this chapter — were real. For a debate on the role of violence in politics in today’s French landscape (in French) on Aude Lancelin’s provocative Media emission “Le Monde Libre,” click here.

Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley hugging the Saint-Eustache church.(1) Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flaring the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the odor of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière (2) quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.

“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”

At this point the boy got his first glimpse of her face, a drawn visage with blue eyes. He knew that the sea was blue. The small girl came from the sea. For that matter, she reeked of fish, unless the odor was coming from the cart. Strictly for purposes of verification, he held his nose up against one of the white legs.

She put up a fight.

“Would you mind not snorting like that? In the first place, where did you come from?”

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

“We’re here!” exclaimed the girl. “And not a moment too soon.”

She jumped off the wagon. The boy towered over her.

“I’m 12 years old,” he declared. “And you?”

“Eleven.”

“You sure are tiny.”

“You’re the one who’s tall. What a bean-stalk! You’re as skinny as a kipper.”

The line of wagons had ground to a halt. The men and women emerging from this tide had floated down to the bistros, from which emanated the hubbub of their boisterous kibitzing. The girl verified that everyone had abandoned her cart, returned to the boy still planted in front of the wagon gawking at her, took his hand and hauled him off in a trot.

“I’ve had it with these hicks,” she declared when they paused to catch their breath, near the rue de Richelieu. “We’re going to make a life together. What’s your name?”

“Fred.”

“Mine’s Flora. You live with your ma and pa?”

“No. I manage to get by on the streets. My old man and mom are dead and buried.”

“You’re lucky. Mine are going to come looking for me if you’re not clever enough to hide me. They work me like an ox, and I’ve had it up to here. Watch out — they’re dangerous. If they ever find out that you kidnapped me, they’ll carve you up into little pieces!”

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You did so — you sniffed my legs.”

“I just wanted to find out if you smelled like fish.”

“That’s how it always starts. Then before you know it, you’re hitched.”

They turned off into the gardens of the Palais Royal. Flora’s eyes grew bigger at the sight of the water shooting up out of the fountains.

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

“Disgusting. It never stops swelling. It’s full of salt and all kinds of icky stuff. It’s cold, it’s viscous — it sinks the boats of poor fishermen. Sometimes it opens up its enormous mouth and chomps at the shore, as if it’s going to swallow up the houses along the docks. It hammers, it howls. I hope I never see its stinking hide again.”

“Here too,” Fred noted, “in the cities, the sea sometimes rises up from all sides and then it spreads out. Last year Paris just about drowned — and all the Parigots with it. The sea came from far away, seeped into the basements, and then overflowed. Rats scurried down the streets like madmen, the rising tide nipping at their butts. Entire blocks disappeared. There was nothing left but rivers. Wood planks were made into bridges. Sometimes it sounded just like canon-fire — the ground-floor windows exploding. Water poured into the houses and pushed up the sewer grills. Paris smelled like mud, cemeteries, fog. All the lower neighborhoods were wiped out. Only then did the flood thin out, leaving behind it just the sound of the waves — as if the water was quite satisfied with the mess it had made. This is how I think of the sea. I used to hear stories about entire drowned cities sunk to the bottom of the ocean where the church bells still rang out.”

“It’s not like that at all! I already told you, the sea is like one huge garbage dump.”

They were sitting in iron chairs by the rim of the grand fountain, with Flora once again swinging her naked legs from her short, worn, chestnut-colored cotton skirt.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Fred declared. “It’s not humanly possible how much you smell like fish. Are you sure cats don’t follow you down the street?”

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her fingers.

Just then a uniformed guard sprung upon them, huffing and puffing like a bulldog. They barely had time to jump out of their chairs to avoid getting clobbered.

“Scram, you little ragamuffins! Vermin!”

They skedaddled towards the ornate Comédie-Française theater, hand in hand. When they got to the rue de Rivoli, their ragged clothing jarred with the chic surroundings. Fred, coiffed with a baseball cap, wore an old grey suit. These together with his hobnailed boots leant him the air of a roving apprentice. Unusually tall and looking older than his age, he might have passed unnoticed in the hoity-toity neighborhoods. But Flora, with her skirt just a little too high, her naked legs, and above all her bare feet, resembled one of “The Two Orphans.”(3) So much so that an evidently well-to-do lady took pity on her and handed her a pittance.

“What did she give you?”

Flora opened the hollow of her hand to reveal the shiny coin.

“Formidable! We’re going to treat ourselves to croissants.”

Ever since the Great Paris Flood of 1910, Fred had been living on the streets. His father, a manual laborer in the trenches of the Metro tunnels, had succumbed to tuberculosis shortly before the flood, with his mother following suite not long afterwards, swept away by the epidemic. The boy was taken in by cousins who had difficulty supporting the extra charge. Fred took advantage of the general bedlam that followed the surging tides to decamp. With his adoptive parents fearing that he would also “quit this world by the chest” and thus concluding that “what he needs most of all is fresh air,” he’d not slept with a roof over his head since running away. In the Les Halles quartier, vagabonds of his stripe abounded. Of all ages. Of all types. From the run-of-the-mill hobo to the Bohemian artist, from the lowest of whores to the Madwoman of Chaillot. Around the iron Baltard pavilions which housed the venders swarmed a nocturnal fauna which fed on the refuse of the great wholesale market. Each citizen appropriated himself his own zone, sleeping in his own particular corner. Each vigorously defended his territory. But he who scrupulously heeded the tacit rules of hobo-dom did not have anything to worry about. In this veritable cesspool, the boy learned all the techniques of survival. He learned how to sleep with one eye open, his mind alert, ready for anything. He learned how to get by on very little, to subsist on availing himself of water only when the opportunity presented itself. He learned how to duck and dodge blows, to be suspicious and wily. All tools which in later life, in many a difficult situation, would enable him to avoid landmines.

All day long Fred and Flora regaled themselves galloping about the streets of Paris. But when night arrived, Fred began to worry. Flora obviously refused to return to Les Halles, where they might be recognized. Yet outside of his quartier, Fred felt lost. He had the impression that since dawn he’d wandered through some fantastic places, but he’d never for a single instant considered the possibility that when night fell he might not be able to return to his niche near Saint-Eustache. At the same time, abandoning Flora was out of the question. This quandary lead them to continue skirting the city center, until they’d wound all the way up to the working-class neighborhoods of Eastern Paris, where they were startled to suddenly find themselves in a sort of countryside, with cottages surrounded by gardens, hangars, and craftsmen’s workshops. Night came upon them all at once in this setting, which felt ominous. They were famished. Fred didn’t want to admit it, but he was lost.

“So, young lovers, just idling about?”

Fred and Flora got ready to bolt when this voice spoke to them from the shadows. But once they’d made out the silhouette of their interlocutor, they were re-assured. It belonged to a very young woman, no more than 16, dressed in a black schoolgirl’s smock. Her short hair, parted in the middle, the white sailor’s collar which highlighted her blouse, and her mischievous, charming little face immediately inspired the children’s confidence.

“I’ve not seen you two around here before. Where are you staying?”

Then, as the youngsters seemed to be tongue-tied, by way of an excuse she added:

“You probably think I’m too curious and that it’s none of my business. And you’re right. I was just trying to shoot the breeze — my way of saying ‘bonjour’! Anyways, good night.”

“Wait, don’t leave,” said Fred. “I think we took a wrong turn somewhere. Are we in the country, or what?”

“You are in Belleville. A not very beautiful ville. (4) A not very beautiful countryside. Belleville is the boonies. That’s what we love about it. But I’m a dolt — perhaps you’re hungry?”

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

The young woman opened an iron gate, leading them through a small garden, and they mounted a wooden stairway to a humble lodging where a man stood at a table carefully reading large sheets of newsprint. He also seemed very young, 20 at most. He was dressed in a peculiar white flannel shirt with mauve silk fringes. His black eyes studied the children.

“This is Victor,” said the young woman. “I’m Rirette.”

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

“Well, Fred, well, Flora, you’ll have some bread and a little cheese. Victor and I won’t ask you any questions. If you have no place to sleep, there’s a shack at the rear of the garden. If you decide not to stay — if you decide you don’t like our mugs — the gate is never locked.”

Human destiny sometimes depends on the smallest things. Or rather, a chain of circumstances is sometimes produced which conducts you to your own personal moment of truth. So it was with Flora’s white legs swinging from the edge of the fishmonger’s wagon, the fascination they exerted on Fred, the girl’s flight which followed, the impossibility of returning to Les Halles, and the children’s impromptu encounter in Belleville with Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchich. And so began the real adventures of Alfred Barthélemy.
1. A church in whose choir another waif once sang, under the direction of Charles Gounod, who would regret that his pupil with the voice of an angel chose painting over music: Auguste Renoir.

2. French for “fishmonger.”

3. “Les Deux Orphelines” (The Two Orphans) was a five-act drama by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon which opened on January 20, 1874, at the théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on the Grands Boulevards, and which the authors later adopted as a serial novel published in the newspaper La Nation in 1892 and in its entirety by Rouff in 1894.

4. “Belleville” translates as “Beautiful city.”

Version originale (extrait):

“Mais moi, je suis un pauvre bougre ! Pour nous autres, c’est malheur dans ce monde et dans l’autre, et sûr, quand nous arriverons au ciel, c’est nous qui devrons faire marcher le tonnerre.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

Tous les matins, le froid réveillait l’enfant à l’aube. Bien avant que ne s’éteignent les réverbères, dans la pâle lumière grise, il s’ébrouait en quittant l’encoignure où il avait dormi, toujours au même endroit, dans une ruelle qui longeait l’église Saint-Eustache. Il s’étirait comme un chat, se secouait les puces, et comme un chat partait à la recherche de quelque nourriture, au pif, à l’odeur. Les Halles se réveillant en même temps que lui, il ne tardait pas à découvrir quelque chose de chaud. Les marchandes de volailles n’ouvraient pas leurs étals avant d’avoir discuté autour d’un bol de bouillon. L’enfant recevait sa part. Puis il s’éloignait en sautillant, jouant à cloche-pied entre les baladeuses chargées d’un amas de victuailles. Tous les vendredis, il remontait la rue des Petits-Carreaux, allant à la rencontre des charrettes de poissonniers qui arrivaient de Dieppe. Il aimait cette odeur d’algues et d’écailles qui déferlait vers le centre de Paris. La mer, cette mer qu’il n’avait jamais vue et qu’il imaginait comme une inondation terrible, se frayait un chemin à travers la campagne et descendait des hauteurs de Montmartre. On entendait les charrettes de très loin, dans un grondement de tonnerre. Les roues cerclées de métal faisaient sur les pavées un vacarme du diable. Auquel s’ajoutait le cliquetis des fers des chevaux. Engourdis dans les voitures par leur long voyage, les poissonniers sommeillaient, enveloppées dans leurs lourdes houppelandes, tenant machinalement les guides. Les chevaux connaissaient leur chemin. Lorsque les premiers attelages arrivaient sous les pavillions de fer, il se produisait alors un embouteillage et le crissement des freins remontait en un grincement aigu jusqu’au faubourg Poissonnière. Les charretiers se réveillaient brusquement, s’invectivaient, se dressaient sur leur siège. Il fallait attendre que les premiers déchargent leurs marchandises. Les chevaux piaffaient, tapaient du pied. La plupart des hommes descendaient de voiture et allaient boire un petit verre de goutte dans les bistrots qui ouvraient leurs volets.

Ce vendredi-là, à l’arrière d’une des charrettes se tenait assise une petite fille. Ses jambes et ses pieds nus se balançaient et le garçon ne remarquait plus que cette peau blanche. Il s’approcha. La petite fille, la tété penchée, le visage caché par ses cheveux blonds embroussaillés qui lui retombaient sur les yeux, ne le voyait pas. Lui, de toute manière, ne regardait que ces jambes dodues, qui se balançaient. Lorsqu’il fut tout près, il entendit que la petite fille chantonnait une comptine. Il avança la main, toucha l’un des mollets.

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

Alors il aperçu son visage, une figure chiffonnée, avec des yeux bleus. Il savait que la mer était bleue. La petite fille venait de la mer. Elle sentait d’ailleurs très fort le poisson, ou bien cela venait de la charrette. Pour en avoir le cœur net il mit le nez sur l’une des jambes blanches.

Elle se débattit.

— Veux-tu pas renifler comme ça. D’abord, d’où sors-tu ?

Il montra le bas de la rue, d’un air vague.

— On est arrivés, dit la petite fille. C’est pas trop tôt.

Elle sauta de la charrette. Le garçon était beaucoup plus grand qu’elle.

— Moi j’ai douze ans, dit-il, et toi ?

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

— C’est toi qui es grand. Quel échalas ! On dirait un hareng saur.

La file de véhicules s’immobilisait. Hommes et femmes de la marée, tous étaient descendus dans les bistrots où on les entendait discuter bruyamment. La petite fille s’assura que personne ne restait dans sa carriole, revint vers le garçon qui demeurait planté là, à la regarder, lui prit la main et l’entraîna, en courant très vite.

— J’ai ai marre de ces péquinots, dit-elle lorsqu’ils s’arrêtèrent près de la rue de Richelieu. On va faire la vie tous les deux. Tu t’appelles comment ?

— Fred.

— Moi, c’est Flora. Tu crèches chez tes père et mère ?

— Non. Je me débrouille dans la rue. Mes vieux sont morts et enterrés.

— T’as de la chance. Les miens vont me courir après, si t’es pas assez malin pour me cacher. Me font trimer comme une bête. J’en ai ma claque. Fais gaffe, ils sont méchants. Si jamais ils voient que tu m’as enlevée, qu’est que tu vas dérouiller !

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

— C’était pour voir si tu sentais le poisson.

— Ça commence comme ça, et après on fait la vie.

Ils bifurquèrent dans les jardins du Palais-Royal. Flora s’émerveilla devant les jets d’eau des bassins.

— La mer, c’est comment ? demanda Fred.

— Dégueulasse. Ça bouge tout le temps. C’est de l’eau pleine de sel et d’un tas de saloperies. C’est froid, c’est méchant, ça coule les bateaux des pauvres pêcheurs. De temps en temps, ça ouvre une gueule énorme et ça se met à mordre les remblais. On dirait qu’elle va avaler les maisons, sur le quai. Elle cogne, elle hurle. J’espère bien ne plus jamais voir cette mauvaiseté.

— Ici aussi, dit Fred, dans les villes la mer remonte parfois de partout et s’étale. L’an dernier, Paris a bien failli se noyer et tous les Parigots avec. La mer vient de très loin, rentrée dans les caves, déborde. Les rats courent dans les rues, comme des fous, suivis par cette montée des eaux qui leur colle aux fesses. Les rues disparaissent. Il n’y a plus que des rivières. On construit des ponts de planches. On entend de temps en temps comme des coups de canon ; les fenêtres des rez-de-chausée explosent. L’eau déferle dans les maisons, soulève les plaques de fonte des égouts. Paris sent la boue, le cimetière, la brume. Tous les bas quartiers s’effacent. Puis la flotte finis par s’étaler, avec seulement un bruit de clapotis. On dirait qu’elle est contente, l’eau, d’avoir fait un tel bordel. C’est comme ça que je vois la mer. On m’a raconté autrefois des histoires où l’on disait qu’au fond de l’Océan se trouvent des villes englouties et qu’on entend même sonner les cloches des églises.

— Mais non, c’est pas ça du tout. La mer, je te dis, c’est une belle saloperie.

Ils s’étaient assis dans des chaises de fer, près du grand bassin. De nouveau, Flora, vêtu d’une robe courte, en vieux lainage marron, balançait ses jambes nues.

— Y a pas à dire, ce que tu peux sentir le poisson, c’est pas Dieu possible. Les chats ne te courent pas après?

Flora haussa ses épaules menues. Elle se mordait les doigts.

C’est à ce moment qu’arriva sur eux, soufflant comme un bouledogue, un gardien en uniforme. Ils n’eurent que le temps de sauter des chaises pour éviter les gifles.

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

Ils coururent vers la Comédie-Française, en se tenant par la main. Arrivés rue de Rivoli, leurs défroques détonnèrent dans ce quartier chic. Fred, coiffé d’une casquette, portait un vieux costume gris. Ses godillots achevaient de lui donner un air d’apprenti en vadrouille. Très grand, d’apparence plus vieux que son âge, il aurait pu passer inaperçu dans les beaux quartiers. Mais Flora, avec sa robe trop courte, ses jambes et surtout ses pieds nus, ressemblait à l’une des Deux Orphelines. A tel point qu’une dame cossue crut de son devoir de lui faire l’aumône.

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

Flora montra la piécette, dans le creux de sa main.

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

Depuis les grandes inondations de Paris, en 1910, Fred vivait dans la rue. Son père, terrassier dans les tranchées du métro, était mort de tuberculose peu de temps auparavant et la mère suivit, emportée par la contagion. L’enfant fut recueilli par des cousins qui supportaient mal cette charge. Fred profita de l’affolement consécutif à la montée des eaux pour déguerpir. Comme ses parents adoptifs ne cessaient de redouter qu’il « parte aussi de la poitrine » et que « ce qu’il lui faudrait c’est le grand air », il n’avait plus jamais dormi sous un toit depuis sa fugue. Dans le quartier des Halles, les vagabonds de son acabit abondaient. De tous les âges. De tous les genres. Du clodo traditionnel à l’artiste bohème, de la putain de dernière classe à la Folle de Chaillot. Autour des pavillons de Baltard grouillait une faune nocturne qui se nourrissait des déchets du grand marché de gros. Chacun s’appropriait une zone, dormait dans un coin. Chacun défendait vigoureusement son territoire. Mais qui observait scrupuleusement les règles tacites de la cloche n’avait pas d’ennuis. L’enfant apprit, dans ce cloaque, toutes les techniques de la survie. Il appris à ne dormir que d’un œil, l’esprit en alerte, toujours sur le qui-vive. Ill apprit à se sustenter de peu, à ne boire que lorsque l’occasion se présentait. Il apprit à esquiver les coups. Il apprit la méfiance, la ruse. Toutes choses qui devaient plus tard, dans maintes situations difficiles, lui permettre d’éviter les chausse-trappes.

Toute la journée, Fred et Flora s’amusèrent à galoper dans les rues. Mais lorsque vint le soir, Fred se trouva désemparé. Flora refusait évidemment de s’approcher du quartier des Halles, où l’on risquait de la reconnaître. Or, sorti des Halles, Fred se sentait perdu. Il avait l’impression que, depuis l’aube, il avait parcouru des lieux fantastiques, mais il ne lui serait jamais venu à à l’idée qu’il puisse ne pas retrouver pour la nuit sa ruelle de Saint-Eustache. Il lui paraissait de même impensable d’abandonner Flora. Ce dilemme les conduisit à contourner le centre de la ville jusqu’aux faubourgs populaires de l’Est, où ils furent tout étonner d’arriver soudain dans une sorte de campagne. Des petites maisons entourées de jardins, des hangars, des ateliers d’artisans. La nuit les surprit dans cet environnement qui leur sembla hostile. Ils avaient faim. Fred n’osait se l’avouer, mais il appréhendait de s’être perdu.

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

Fred et Flora s’apprêtaient à fuir en entendant cette voix qui sortait de l’ombre. Mais lorsqu’ils discernèrent la silhouette de la personne qui les interpellait, ils se rassurèrent. Il s’agissai d’une toute jeune femme, qui pouvait avoir seize ans, vêtue d’un sarrau noir d’écolière. Ses cheveux courts, séparés par une raie en deux bandeaux, son col marin bien blanc qui éclairait la blouse, sa frimousse espiègle, inspirèrent aussitôt confiance aux deux enfants.

— Je ne vous ai jamais vus dans le quartier. Où donc restez-vous ?

Et comme les deux enfants ne savaient que répondre, elle eut un geste, pour s’excuser :

— Vous direz que je suis bien curieuse et que ça ne me regarde pas. Vous aurez bien raison. Je disait ça comme ça, pour parler. Histoire de vous dire bonjour, quoi ! Allez, bonne nuit.

— Ne partez pas, dit Fred. Je crois bien qu’on s’est égarés. C’est la campagne, ici, ou quoi?

— C’est Belleville. Une pas très belle ville. Une pas très belle campagne. Belleville, c’est nulle part. C’est pourquoi on y est bien. Mais, je suis bête, peut-être avez-vous faim ?

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

La jeune femme ouvrit un portail de fer, les fit passer dans le jardinet et ils montèrent, par un escalier de bois, dans un petit logement où un homme, debout devant une table, lisait attentivement de grandes feuilles de papier journal. Lui aussi paraissait très jeune, vint ans tout au plus. Il était vêtu d’une curieuse blouse en flanelle blanche, bordée de soie mauve. Ses yeux noirs examinèrent les deux enfants.

— C’est Victor, dit la jeune femme. Moi je m’appelle Rirette.

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

— Eh bien, Fred, et bien, Flora, vous aurez un peu de pain et de fromage. Victor et moi nous ne vous interrogerons sur rien. Si vous ne savez pas où dormir, il y a une cabane au fond du jardin. Si notre tête ne vous revient pas, le portail ne ferme jamais a clef.

La destinée des êtres tient à peu de chose. Ou plutôt, il se produit parfois un enchaînement de circonstances qui vous amène à votre heure de vérité. Ainsi des jambes blanches de Flora, balancées au bord de la charrette, de la fascination qu’elles exercèrent sur Fred, de la fugue de la petite fille qui s’ensuivit, de leur impossibilité de retourner aux Halles de la rencontre impromptue qu’ils firent à Belleville de Rirette Maîtrejean et de Victor Kibaltchich. A partir de là commencent vraiment les aventures d’Alfred Barthélemy.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus,” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990

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

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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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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