France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 5, 2010

Faites entrer l’accusé; Jean Gabin can wait

I swear it’s not the grisly details that make Faites entrer l’accusé (on France 2 public television) one of my addictions, but rather that the weekly reconstructions of some of France’s more infamous faits divers also serve as tours de France, the crimes often taking place in obscure villages or cities I’ve never been to. Plus there are certain characteristics of the program itself that might give it cult status: The music for one, the charisma of the fascinated host Christophe Hondelet, and the way the camera zooms in on the often blemished faces of his subjects — not the culpable himself but attorneys, relatives and friends of the victim, policemen and gendarmes, juges d’instruction….Last week-end’s episode came a little too close to (my former) home. The subject was the butcher of the marché Saint-Martin, in both the professional and criminal senses of that word. “Hey, I know that guy!” I exclaimed to the stuffed Northern Exposure moose who is now my sole companion snce Sonia passed. While it was not my regular marché for the six years that we lived on the rue de Paradis in Paris, the marché Saint-Martin had a cheap cheese store with great selection and, indeed, there it was on television, right across from the Italian butcher’s stand of Italian products.

Now, you might think that a television show about a butcher who cuts his lover up into little pieces would be about the latest program broadcast at night, after the kids have gone to bed, but if you thought so you’d be wrong. After midnight is reserved for the French film patrimoinie. And if I often fall asleep before the verdict in Faites entre l’accusé, I usually don’t make it past the first five minutes of the cinema de minuit feature film, no matter how much I want to watch it. Last night’s film — which rolled around at about 12:30, a half hour after the update that the doctor who slowly poisoned to death the military husband of his lover after she’d conned him into believing he was beating her had been released on parole after 6 years rolled across the closing credits in Faites Entrer — was “Remorques,” starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, and Michelle Morgan. Jean Gabin, who has also played Maigret, is just about Mr. French Cinema for me — you might also know him from “The Grand Illusion.” Just the film poster itself — with Gabin in parka battling winds and rain at the wheel of his tugboat — is enough to thrill you. Helas, this was not the best film to watch at 12:30 in the morning with waning attention powers complicating an early but essential rescue scene, with the action going back and forth between the rescue boat and the boat in distress, the dialogue already garbled by the age of the 70-year-old film. Because it was Jean Gabin I weathered the storm and made it longer than usual, but finally had to bow from faitgue, leaving Gabin and Renaud walking along a beach in Brest, before he even had a chance to get involved with Morgan.

I had debated whether to watch the film at all after an intro which explained filming started in 1939 then resumed in 1941 during the Occupation. It’s hard for me to watch French people continuing with life as normal when I know life was getting progressively worse and worse for their Jewish countrymen. But then I noted the scenario was by Jacques Prevert, who also wrote “Barbara,” an ode to a vanished Brest decimated at the end of the war (“It’s raining on Brest”), so to see a film written by him set in Brest before it was bombed out seemed an important chapter in my running history of France.

But here’s my point: Why are these films — France’s heritage — broadcast after midnight on a school night, no less, when the prime-time movie slot is so often occupied by BAD mass-market American garbage. (Though not always: Last night’s prime-time movie on France 2 was, exceptionally, an older and classic, “Les Tontons Flingueurs,” starring Lino Ventura. I’d been wanting to see this one for so long that I overlooked yesterday’s news that a town in France had rescinded a decision to name a street after the author of the novel on which it was based, Albert Simonin, after allegations that he’d collaborated.) There are some good new films produced for the France Television networks, but it seems like half of them are about the war and most of those are about French who helped Jews or fought in the Resistance. Why not replace some of the crappy American films and a few of the probably skewed portrayals of war-time France that take up prime-time movie time with more films like “Remorques” that were actually made before, during, and after the Occupation — at an hour where people are actually awake. If national identity is not just about excluding those who don’t conform to it but actually confirming the MANY parts of that identity about which French citizens can be proud — showing these old films at a time people can actually see them would seem a great way to buttress that identity and legitimate national pride.

June 7, 2009

La vie du passé en rose

It’s amazing how a past that’s not even my own, but rather a memory of how profoundly I felt another culture’s past when I lived in Paris from 2001 to 2007, pulled at me again early Friday evening as I dashed down the winding, chestnut-tree shaded rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, stopping only to pay tribute to that well-known cat designer and lover Theodore Steinlin as I passed his house and jet my eye at the atelier where Toulouse-Lautrec once drew Suzanne Valadon. This was after, further up the Butte, I’d paid my respects to Erik Satie outside the one-story apartment building where he’d lived from 1890 to 1898, to Valadon at the now-shuttered restaurant where a plaque reminds us that she and Utrillo dined there for some 20 years, and before I madly scurried across the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel and his pal had done in “The 400 Blows” with a typewriter they’d stolen from Antoine’s father’s office, setting Antoine off on a path of flight that would last 20 years, countless women, and four more Truffaut films.

I wasn’t the only one in Montmartre Friday night channeling ghosts. On the rue Rustique, down the street from the ancient chez Valadon-Utrillo outside the back entrance of a resto, a hyper-spirited pony-tailed young woman with an infectious smile that bared all her teeth was bouncing along in jeans and sky-blue blouse, accompanied Django-style by a guitar and bass player as she sang and snapped a jump version of Gainsbourg’s “Javanaise” and then a jazzy version of “La Vie en Rose” that totally changed its mood from melancholic to celebratory.

Saturday it was more Piaf — have I mentioned that I’m living up the street from where La Mome was born? — as my pal Luc suggested we RDV at noon at the Cafe Edith Piaf, so named because it faces the plaza at the exit of the Metro station Porte Bagnolet dominated by her statue. (On the front of which some connard has poured red paint.) The Resto is decorated with photos of Piaf and her performance posters of the epoch. She’s even playing on the juke. If this sounds like a set-up designed for tourists, it’s not; it’s a local cafe that’s somehow both a tribute to and an authentic living embodiment of an earlier era.

My adventure, though, started earlier, as I rushed (I rush a lot — I may be the fastest man in Paris; I moved here to stop rushing but it hasn’t worked) through the Saturday market stalls. Apparently it’s fete your market week-end in Paris, as I was reminded when I came upon a stand where a man with a mike and a smiley woman seemed to be giving away goody-stuffed sleek blue and white canvas bags inscribed in multi-color with “Les marchés de Paris.” I hovered, but they just kinda looked at me as if to say, “Et alors?” Then they stopped another guy and asked him a question about General de Gaulle; apparently you had to pass a quiz to get a goody sack. I cursed my luck, as Le General is one of my specialties. (I like to regal my Les Eyzies potes Bernard and Stephan with my recording of his greatest speeches when they stop by at night to regard the pre-historic cliffs, drink Panaché ((no, all French ‘paysans’ don’t sit around drinking marc)) and try to get me to adopt a mutton or convince me that the moon has disappeared.) But I persisted in hovering, and I guess they realized they’d have to give me the chance to win a bag to get rid of me. The guy stuck his mike in my face and pointed at my beret. At first I didn’t understand (my French is not that bad, really, but my level drops dramatically in high-pressure situations), but then I caught “Hergé,” and when he again indicated my hat, I realized he was referring to my Captain Haddock (tr.: Craddock) pin. He asked me if I was a Tintin fan, I nodded, and then, with an “Oh yeah?” look in his eye, he popped the question:

“How many volumes of Tintin did Hergé write?”

Merde. “Uh… 12?”

(I realized later that our little interview was being broadcast throughout the ten-block market.)

“That’s right!” he said, giving me a break and handing me a sack. Then he asked where I was from — is it *still* that evident that I’m not from around here? — and instead of f*cking with him as I’ve been doing with a lot of Parisians by answering, “Sud-ouest. Dordogne!” I answered “America.” “Yay Obama!” he said. This gave me confidence, so before I walked off with my loot I said, “Thank you for myself, and also on behalf of Captain Craddock,” which must have been understandable, because the smiley woman laughed.

In the bag was a wide-brimmed straw hat, baseball hat, and tee-shirt, all plugging the marchés, plus a big ‘ol bag of potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I contributed two of the onions to the veggie feast Luc had prepared for his daughter and me, after we’d picked up two heaping boxes of old books a local bookstore owner, Jose, had given to Luc for his ‘boite’ on the Seine. — he’s a bouquiniste or bookseller along the Seine. Luc stacked them under a big empty box inside his doorway, but as soon as he’d disappeared into the kitchen I delved in, finding treasures like a complete set of the Dos Passos “U.S.A.” saga and a clothbound 1950s circa collection of Tennessee Williams, both in translation of course.

While we were eating, Jose, who’d turned down Luc’s invitation to join us, was digging out his Boris Vian books for me, “Elles ne rendent pas compte” (rough tr.: “These women don’t realize what they’re doing”) and “Les Fourmis,” (“The Ants”), a collection of novellas. Vian books besides “‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes” (“I’ll spit on your graves”) are hard to find, so I’m sure Jose’s 5 Euro apiece price was just, but a)I’m on a budget which I’ve already exceeded and b)the plain white covers and that these were recent additions didn’t do much for me. “I like the old pocket-book covers!” I explained to Luc. “It’s the title that matters, not the design!” At today’s vide grenier (neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) on the rue Marie and Louise near the canal, I scored both these books and a third, “Trouble dans les Andains” (completed in 1942-1943 but issued posthumously in 1966, thus both the first novel Vian wrote and the last published). The cover for “Les Fourmis” features Boris in kaleidescope, wearing a black shirt and four different expressions; ‘Andains’ has him pressing a fist to his chest and regarding the reader with wry menace; and the last has a full-color Vargas Girl kicking up her heels from a reclining position as she starts to remove her stockings. Total price: 3 Euros. Earlier, at a vide grenier nearer to my apartment, I’d picked up sealed DVDs of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” for 2.60 total. Bi-continental schizophrenic stuck in other people’s pasts: C’est moi.

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.