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.