France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 10, 2010

Jazz is Paris, Paris is Malcolm McLaren

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy. Tous les garçons et les filles.
Juliette Greco, Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve
And I’m walking with Eric Satie
Along the boulevards of Paris in the springtime.
Un orchestre d’oiseaux every so often breaks
This map of feelings
Drifting through these landscapes of love
Watching strays from Pere Lachaise.”

— “Walking with Satie,” from Malcolm McLaren’s 1997 “Paris.”

“The Velvet Underground meets
The Velvet Gentleman.
Running down the Boulevard Saint-Germain
Happy in the spring sunshine
Into the rue Vermeuil
And the house of Serge Gainsbourg.
On his piano sits a portrait of Sid.
Sid Viscious. I sing to you
For all the things that you do
Because I love you like a girl.”

— Rue Dauphine, from “Paris.”

“Meeting Juliette Greco in bed in the afternoon with Miles Davis
In a cheap hotel in Saint-Germain
Seeing them later in love at the Club Taboo
A ghost of New Orleans.
Juliette dances with Miles’s trumpet
Miles and miles and miles of Miles Davis
echoes around the room
With Juliette sobbing and moaning the verses
A funeral of sublime passion
‘I didn’t know he was black,’ she said.
‘I don’t know why, I just didn’t.
And when I discovered he was black
i just cried and cried.’
Jazz is Paris and Paris is Jazz.”

— “Miles and Miles and Miles of Miles Davis,” from “Paris.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that none of the obseques to Malcolm McLaren yesterday on French radio mentioned his landmark ode to Paris — and everything it has represented for romantics around the world for nigh on 200 years — in the concept album of the same name. Thanks to Malcolm, I was already dreaming of Paris for years before I’d ever seen it, having made a nightly ritual of taking my apero in my W. 8th Street Greenwich (Hint to Frenchies: Don’t pronounce the ‘w’) Village flat accompanied by his landscapes of love. But when I first played it for a bunch of French people, at a Thanksgiving dinner shortly after I moved there in 2001, the only reaction I got was from a young intello who called Malcolm’s version of Gainsbourg/Bardot’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (with Blanca Li taking the Bardot part) blasphemous. It’s almost as if Parisians resent that a non-Frenchy could have a more profound attachment and appreciation — or at least a more eloquent expression of it — than them, as if by doing so he was usurping their right to interpret it. Consequently, all (all too brief) obits of him yesterday preferred instead to segregate McLaren into foreign territory, that of the punk rock – fashion impresario, for instance.

To me, though, Malcolm McLaren simply followed his passion, and it’s in that fashion that he linked himself to the passionate, those who have found the perfect expression of passion — albeit often melancholy and nostalgic passion — in Paris, or at least the dream of Paris.

Paris’s rich past, and its lingering expression, can pull one like a sort of luxuriant quicksand. When I did my own running down the rue Caulaincourt on the butte (Montmartre) last Spring, I was almost overwhelmed and overcome by that passion, as earlier in the month I’d been subsumed in nostalgic passion for Boris Vian, then the subject of numerous exhibitions and concerts on the 50th anniversary of his death at 39. (Dommage that McLaren didn’t have room for Vian on his tribute, which featured Catherine Deneuve talk-singing, Françoise Hardy singing, Amina in a dance track mixing up audio from a James Bond film, and tributes to Greco and Sonia Rykiel; if Paris is Jazz, Vian was Jazz in Paris.) The ghosts there in Montmartre are particularly strong; in that late afternoon alone I’d run past the demeures of Satie (high up on the butte), Pissarro, Steinlin, Lautrec, finishing by dashing across the bridge over the Montmartre Cemetery which shows up in three of the five films in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, and where Truffaut himself was finally interred in 1984, like McLaren a victim of cancer.

But the question for me, still, is whether the romantic power and pull of that past — evoked in the Truffaut films, Pissarro and Lautrec canvasses, Steinlin sculptures, Satie and Greco music, and Deneuve films — can manifest itself in a romantic present. Or is the pull of these emotional landscapes so strong that it’s hard to find their match in present, living reality?

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.

June 1, 2009

The Chevalier de la Barre: La suite

It’s amazing how certain traits of a society never change. About 230 years ago, a young man refused to take off his hat for and hurled impudent ditties at a passing parade of nobles and notables in Paris; for this they cut off the hands that refused to to take of the hat and the tongue that sang the ditties, and then they burned him at the stake. Later they put up a statue of and monument to the young man who became known as the Chevalier de la Barre in a park in the shadow of Sacre Coeur and named the street that encircles this church — itself a symbol of repentance imposed on the losers of the Paris Commune by the federal authorities — after him.

60 years ago, in “The Stranger,” Albert Camus wrote of a nondescript civil servant who is persecuted not because he kills an Arab (to stick with Camus’s nomenclature), but because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral — in other words, not for the criminal act he actually committed against society, but for not conforming to societal norms.

Six months ago, frustrated by her department’s inability to capture those responsible for a series of rail sabotages and threats of sabotage, the French interior minister ordered the arrestation of an anarchist activist, Julien Coupat, his girlfriend, and a few members of their coterie, all of whom lived in a collective in rural southwest France reading and writing about anarchist theory. Absent sufficient proof linking them to the rail sabotage (Coupat and his girlfriend, Yiddune Levy, had allegedly been seen in the vicinity of one of the rail targets) the interior minister accused them of belonging to an ultra-left organization with links to terrorism.

The thinness of the evidentiary trail became clear to me when French authorities said they’d started tailing Coupat on the basis of a tip from the FBI, which consisted of saying he’d been seen at a meeting of alleged anarchists in the States.

In other words, for the past six months, Julien Coupat has been kept in prison not for any crime which, at this point anyway, is provable, but for what he thinks, writes, and reads — and, to be fair, for being at two meetings and taking part in two demonstrations. And, by implication, for being and thinking different.

On Thursday, the French parquet finally realized they had no choice but to release Coupat, albeit keeping him under ‘control judiciary,’ meaning he has to report in every day, post a 16,000 Euro bond, has to stay in the Paris area where his parents live and can’t associate with any other members of the supposed cell (all of whom had been previously released).

As for the not so extreme Left, it has been typically slow to respond to the government’s extreme treatment of Coupat; only now, after the damage has been done — and, conveniently, a week before the European parliamentary elections — are prominent leaders coming forth and denouncing a ‘judicial fiasco,’ with one, Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, going so far as to demand the resignation of interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie, and the Greens, meanwhile (finally), demanding a parliamentary investigation. The French daily Liberation, which reported these belated gestures in its Friday editions, appropriately made Coupat’s liberation its cover, with the fitting headlines: ‘Coupat freed; Investigation into a fiasco.’ “One has the right, in a Democracy,” the paper’s editor Laurent Joffrin wrote, “to deliver a radical critique of democratic society, to denounce the State, to lambast a system of power that one judges oppressive. It’s even one of the conditions of the existence of a democratic society.”

The question, then, isn’t whether one supports anarchy — I don’t, because under the guise of threatening just the government, it ultimately attacks the security of us all, a contempt for civil society underlying all the fancy rhetoric — but whether one supports plurality of thought. (Where anarchy moves beyond thought into acts of violence, there’s a solution: You prosecute for the criminal acts, adding ‘conspiracy’ to the charges where that applies.) One of the many things I love about France is that it ultimately does encourage multiplicity of political thought, much more than my own country. At the primary school down the street from me — as at the schools throughout Paris which will also serve as voting places next Sunday — 27 metal panels with messages from 27 different political parties with candidates for the European parliamentary elections are on display, the Socialists falling about in the middle. (When I was the student member of the San Francisco Board of Education 30 years ago, supposedly apolitical school system authorities accused me of being a ‘radical Socialist’ just for denouncing planned program cuts.) In the last French presidential election, 11 parties presented candidates in the first of two rounds. In the last U.S. presidential election and in U.S. elections in general, there are essentially two parties, one marginally to the Left and one extremely to the Right of the political center. Yes, there’s a Green Party and there’s even now a Socialist member of the Senate, but unlike in France, there aren’t any rules assuring equal advertising time for and thus equal exposure to the Greens and other ‘minor’ party candidates — indeed, the Democrats, Republicans, and major television networks have repeatedly colluded to exclude candidates from any other parties from the presidential debates. So the question isn’t whether, absent actual proof of illegal acts, one agrees with anarchists like Julien Coupat, the question is whether one wants a society that prizes freedom of ideas.

January 2, 2009

J’accuse! ;) (kidding! Don’t sue me!)

If Philippe Val can call on Voltaire to indict those who (unsuccessfully) sued his mag Charlie Hebdo for his re-publication of the infamous caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed — he’s now published a book called, “Return, Voltaire, they’ve gone crazy,” (which I’ve not read) — then I can reference Zola on the Dreyfus Affair to call attention to Val’s ludicrous statement on France Culture last night that there’s no contradiction between on the one hand, publishing these cartoons which he knew would offend Muslims and on the other hand firing the humorist Siné for refusing to apologize for a commentary Val had already published and which was later attacked as being anti-Semitic. According to Val, the Siné commentary, in which the veteran cartoonist says (among other things, and as it turned out, erroneously) that Jean Sarkozy, ambitious scion of the president, is marrying a Jewish business heiress and thus moving up in the world, invokes racial hatred; whereas the caricatures of the Prophet, including one where a dark-skinned obviously Arab character wears a bomb as a turban, are in Val’s view part of a noble ideological combat. As the French say, Hmm. (For a great breakdown of the Siné controversy, which not only reprints the commentary in question but Siné’s eloquent defense and the cartoon defenses of some of his colleagues, check this article on Rue 89.)

Apparently the Voltaire parallel comes in because the great French writer and philosopher was, like Val, brought to court for practicing freedom of speech, or something like that.

Val obviously knows Voltaire better than I do, but I can’t help but think the comparison ludicrous when I recall Voltaire’s post-humous celebration of the Chevalier de la Barre. This was a young man of 19 who had the temerity to not remove his hat and chant insolent ditties at a passing parade of nobles in the late 18th century, about 20 years before the Revolution, thus becoming its harbinger. For the ditties, the authorities chopped off his tongue; for refusing to take off his hat, they releived him of his hands. Then they burned him at the stake. (Later, in typical French fashion, they put up a statue in his memory. You can see it in Montmartre right below the Sacre Coeur.) What’s my point? The kind of freedom of speech Voltaire would defend would seem to be more the type that thumbs its nose at authority — *thus taking a mortal risk* — than the kind of anti-Muslim piling on (in fact regardless of intention) in which Val indulged himself.

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