by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
PARIS – Actually, the dateline should be ‘Pantin,’ or as an off-duty clown acquaintance I ran into on the rue Cascades during the Open Studios of Belleville on my way to DJ for a couple of artist colleagues, one of whose work includes skeleton comics (“How to get rid of an unwanted skeleton pal”) corrected me, “Pantin.” (I’ve been having French people correct me by repeating what I thought I just said for 16 years.) I had been planning to hedge it because ‘Pantin’ doesn’t sound as glamorous as ‘Paris,’ or, after realizing I could walk to Belleville via the tres mignon (in a desuet or obsolete sort of way) ‘burb of St.-Gervais, declare that I’m living in “Outer Belleville.”
One reason I love living in “Outer Belleville”: The proximity to the work of Belleville artists such as Kristin Meller, whose above wood-cut, “Candide” was part of a four-part series displayed during the recent Open Studios of Belleville at the gallery/atelier of the Association l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire on the rue Cascades, which Meller co-directs with Raoul Velasco, whose etching and intaglio “Tout rentré dans l’ordre” is published below.
In fact, Pantin is actually closer to my Paris – the Canal St. Martin, into which Pantin’s Ourcq canal flows before it empties out into the Seine after passing by the Bastille – than the outer reaches of the 20th arrondissement where I lived in 2010, even though I was right off the tres Parisian sounding Place Edith Piaf, complete with statue of La Mome. At the moment I’m writing this, I should be in an even more Parisian part of Paris, the Marais (once the Jewish sector, then the Gay quartiere, now full of fashion shops), watching a Polish theater company bring to life 100 real photographs of the social lives of the commandants of Auschwitz (how does one unwind after spending the day gassing Jews?), but as the Home page of my performance magazine is now garnering about 26 visitors per day, few of whom are ready to pay to actually read the complete articles, I figure that after 40 years of covering the (often cloistered) vision of performing artists, it’s time to cut out the middle man and write about the spectacle of real life as I see it. And if it hadn’t been for a dentist’s appointment this afternoon, I mightn’t have ventured out at all and would have spent the whole day writing about what I’ve already seen since I returned to Pantin/Paris two weeks ago. This includes a platoon of AK-47 armed soldiers on the subway line running from the Port Dauphine to La Defense (not the home of the Defense department, but the business district, which Jacques Tati turned into a modernist Paris Playland for the 1967 “Playtime”), who no one else on the train seemed to notice. “Well, it’s meant to discourage the terrorists,” a Pantinese acquaintance pointed out. Given the high toll of the fire-fight likely to ensue if a suicidal terrorist started anything, such a hyper-military presence seems more an incentive than a deterrent. I prefer to think – and the relaxed attitudes of the young men as they joked with each other seem to confirm this – that they were simply on their way home to the barracks, even the sneakers they were wearing, the same they might sport if they’d just been shooting hoops, indicating that they might have been on stand-down.
There were no soldiers on the bus my new and groovy Pantinese roommate raced onto the day after my arrival when I called to announce that the skeleton key had lost its upper teeth, which I’d only discovered after I’d shut the door. Seeking a phone from which to call her, I’d descended to the ground floor and knocked on many doors with the sound of people arguing behind them before a harried bob-haired young woman in glasses finally opened and ceded. “Okay, but make it quick, because we’re in the middle of an intervention.” However, by the time the co-locataire (roommate) I’ll call “Sabine” got to the back of the bus, she’d lost her cell phone. At about the moment she realized this, a man wearing a “Just do it” tee-shirt raced to the front of the bus, picked something up, then returned to the back before hopping off, so she decided to tail him. Shades of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in which Antoine (the growing up, but still incorrigible 14-year-old of the 1959 “The 400 Blows”; Truffaut would follow the lives and loves of Antoine for 20 years) gets hired as a detective. (The movie is one of three of the five Antoine films featuring the Montmartre cemetery, starting with “The 400 Blows,” in which Antoine and a pal cross the bridge above the cemetery to return a typewriter they’ve just stolen from his step-father’s office. Truffaut would eventually be buried there, his tomb attracting letters asking for advice from all over the world. The actor who played Antoine, Jean-Pierre Leaud, was honored last week-end at Cannes, from which the reporter for France Culture radio reported that the 71-year-old former ‘fetish’ actor of both Godard and Truffaut and over whose persona they disputed the direction of the New Wave now resembles “an old Indian.”) Sabine ultimately lost her quarry when he dashed into an Antoine et Lilly’s boutique and cut out the back. I will have to sit her down to watch Ben Gazzara following Audrey Hepburn in Bogdanovich’s 1980 “They all Laughed” to see how a professional tail job is executed. (Just to complete the Leaud-Truffaut-Godard filmography: At about the same time Truffaut was sending him shuffling from bourgeoisie job to bourgeoisie job in “Stolen Kisses,” Godard cast Leaud as both a Maoist revolutionary in “La chinoise” *and* as Robespierre’s partisan Saint-Just in “Week-end.” In “Stolen Kisses,” Leaud-Antoine’s last job is as a television repairman, suggesting a clairvoyance on Truffaut’s part about where Godard would end up.)
In case you’re still not convinced that droll Parisian-like things happen in Pantin, or at least to Pantinese girl detectives and ‘boy’ bourlingeurs (a fancy word for ‘vagabond’ which I picked up from Blaise Cendrars’s “Bourlinguer”) – not counting my observing a motorcyclized city employee circle the trees lining the banks of the Ourcq to spear dog-poop (“That was Chirac” who instituted the anti-poop campaign, Sabine informs me, indicating at least one legacy the former French president has in common with the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk) – on Thursday evening, at the respectable hour of 8 p.m., my roommate and I decided to alert the neighbors to my birthday fete for Saturday, even though at that point it was becoming more and more theoretical, what with all the guest couples breaking up. First Phil & Bill, from the local de-radicalization center, then me and what I thought was an incipient relationship with a young woman I met on the Metro during my last Paris-Pantin visit after I noticed her reading Bukowski’s “Journal of a Deguelasse Old Man” (although “Deguelasse” as a translation for “Dirty” doesn’t seem to quite go with Belmondo’s last words for Seberg – “C’est deguelasse” — after she betrays him in Godard’s 1960 “Breathless”), praying I hadn’t hooked up with a cheek mutilator. (See “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” Marco Ferreri’s 1982 film in which Gazzara plays the Bukowski figure, and Ornella Muti loses some of her sex appeal when she pokes a hand-sized safety pin through one cheek until it sticks out the other. The safety-pin shenanigans get worse, to an extent which would make Brando and Schneider (in “Last Tango…”) blanche, but it’s still worth it for the scene of Gazzara/Bukowski dazedly stumbling over Venice Beach in Groucho glasses after Muti’s pin-ultimate scene.) After I wrote my French Bukowski buff last week to thank her for furnishing the highlight of my week, she wrote me back to say that she hoped I didn’t think our date, at the vernissage for the opening of the Open Studios of Belleville, was a date (as opposed to something more ‘amicale’), as she wasn’t in that mode. When I replied that I was disappointed, she wrote back to say she was disappointed with the way I expressed my disappointment, giving you an idea of how the level of Franco-American dating dialogue has plummeted since Kelly & Caron (in Minelli/Kelly’s 1951 “American in Paris”), even if the denouement has not yet descended to the deguelasse level of Belmondo & Seberg. Anyway, by politesse Sabine and I still thought it a good idea to warn the neighbors.
Everything went well until we got to the couple living below us, who answered our invitation (politely enough), with a question: “Are you the guy who’s been moving furniture around at 1 in the morning?” asked the husband as the wife rolled her eyes and head and added, ”C’est horrible, on ne dort plus.” “I guess I should remove my authentic Fort Worth cowboy boots (with the genuine manure lines that distinguish real cowboys from the dime-store variety) at night,” I told Sabine after they closed the door. The next neighbor, two floors down (I think Sabine over-estimates the strength of my computer speakers, which are not as emphatic as my boots), revealed himself as a bearded middle-aged Mickey Rooney (without the faux-Japanese buck teeth from Blake Edwards’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or “Donuts sur la 5eme avenue,” as it translates in French; just to get another A. Hepburn reference in, I’m making Audrey and Cary Grant in Donen’s “Charade” my new model for Parisian romance – at least the age difference fits) and upon Sabine’s introducing me, in a way that must have suggested I was a practical joker, “Mickey” plucked at the graying chest hairs peeping out from my shirt, pinching the exact spot where my sole remaining chicken pox pimple (I shouldn’t have scratched) from the great Timber (as Audrey/Holly announces the imminent fall of a drunken floozy at her wild party) Cove Chicken Pox Plague of 1968 is the only vulnerable sector in my chest, not counting the one to its left.
But getting back to my date who announced after the first date I’d had in 15 years that it wasn’t a date but something more amicable, and lest you think that I’ve got no prospects: On Sunday, I had an Antoine Doinel-Delphine Seyrig moment – she played the older woman, the wife of the owner of the shoe store whose infidelities Antoine’s detective agency sent him to fetter out (which he did) in “Stolen Kisses,” the third film of the Antoine cycle (click the link for their romantic scene), before she portrayed the dowdy (spoiler alert) middle-aged homicidal prostitute in Chantal Akerman’s 1975 “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” – at the Open Studios of Pere Lachaise (another cemetery, if you’re keeping track) when an older artist, after addressing me as “Mon chou,” swiped my tail end. (When I last saw Seyrig on screen, she was portraying Sylvia Plath’s mother in an exchange of their letters staged by Akerman, before both Plath and Akerman committed suicide, the latter in Belleville at the beginning of October in what might have been a premonitionary defense against the November attacks, and what others speculate was a reaction to losing her Auschwitz survivor mother in 2014, juxtaposed with seeing French soldiers guarding Jewish schools in 2015.) I was tempted, but I walked it off, heading down to the canal – on the way passing by the Carillon and the Petite Cambodia, the caddy-corner cafes where the “Islamic State” killers had massacred the terrace-dwellers, but which I’d avoided visiting in the days after November 13 precisely because this corner was on my regular beat between Belleville and the canal. (I seem to dwell on November 13 more than my Parisian acquaintances; it’s almost as if because I left Paris on December 15, I’m five months behind them in the recovery/morning process. The direct victims had the right to therapy, as they should, but what about those of us who were not physically injured but just find our quotidian routes mined with menace? Some of the key Metro entrances are now guarded by the national police, as if to announce that you’re leaving the neutral zone, have lost your invisibility cloak, and the Romulans could attack at any moment. ((Maybe this is why I keep cancelling performances for which I have free tickets, at least at downtown theaters; I who never let a snowstorm stop me from driving to a barber’s appointment in Anchorage am not keen to enter a war zone every time I go to the theater. In Antoine’s time (((“Domicile Congugale,” 1974))), the most he risked by entering a Metro station was that a diaper ad would make him realize why his wife had asked him to drop her off at the gynecologist’s. If I’m ever to venture downtown again, it will be for a date; I’d like to think that there’s at least the possibility of a diaper in my future.))) After pausing at the Carillon / Cambodia – where most of the tributes have been taken down; life goes on — I walked by my old café d’habitude Le Valmy where, miraculously, my first server of 13 years ago was at the bar chatting with friends. (I used to go into the Valmy in 2003 and ostentatiously shake my head at Le Monde’s accounts of the American butchery in Iraq; the server had vigorously defended me when another client accused me of knocking his espresso to the floor when I got too excited during a poetry slam ((“Whenever life gets me down, I just have another cup of espresso.” – Shel Silverstein)). It was on this same street that hooligans last week set fire to a police car – while two officers were in it – following a demonstration at the nearby Place de Republique against hatred of the police.) I invited him to the party. I also invited Fabrice, my former plumber, whose courage I’ve admired, as an example to follow, ever since he tried to drag (pick-up on) me. Maybe Fabrice and the former server will defend me from the chicken pox picking neighbor if he shows up at the party in a particularly feisty mood. Eventually I made it to the Basin la Villette and on to Pantin, along the way passing a peniche with the painted warning, “Duck at work. Don’t disturb,” and counting more couples – I stopped at 50 – speaking English than French, and who I finally figured must be coming from the Cabaret Sauvage across the water, outside of which a poster announced, “Share Fest 2016,” proving that the Californians have finally been kicked out of Seattle and are lapping at the shores of the Ourcq, to misquote the Indigo Girls. At the Paris-Pantin frontier, under a plaque announcing “Entering Pantin,” a street sign for the 19th arrondissement of Paris announced, “Rue Delphine Seyrig.” Under it someone had spray-painted “Donuts!”
PS: “Sabine” says I shouldn’t leave out ‘la suite’ to the broken key – possibly stolen cell phone incident. Evidently still bousculated by this crime wave and an aborted career as the French answer to Nancy Drew which lasted even less longer than Antoine’s as a Hardy Boy (note to French readers: both are fictional teen detectives from the 1950s), that afternoon Sabine forgot to take her polka-dotted (“C’est quoi ‘polka-dotted?” S. asks as she looks over my shoulder) dress with her as she headed to the rehearsal for her somewhat savage cabaret show that night at a bar under the Viaduct called “La souffle de la soufflé;.” Failing to make me understand by her panicked text messages that afternoon that she wanted me to bring the dress to her at her hair-dresser’s (“I asked her to curl my hair,” she explained to me later under a very uncurled ‘do which had been matted by the maussade temps we’ve been having; bienvenue a Seattle.), she’d dashed back to the house in Pantin, engaged a taxi-driver outside the Metro station to meet her chez nous in 20 minutes, and ended up converting the back of the cab into her lodge, using the windows as mirrors as she applied her make-up. “This is the most sublime moment of my day,” she shared. “Reminds me of ‘Holy Motors,’” I replied, referring to the Leo Carax 2012 film in which a hired actor, played by Carax fetish Denis Levant, gets driven around Paris in a limousine that also acts as his changing room to take part in scenes — as the victim of a hit job, the husband of an ape, a lunatic disturbing a ceremony at Pere Lachaise, Kylie Minogue jumping off the roof of the closed Samaritaine department store, etc. — that the witnesses think are genuine. Only now we’re the victims, and it’s for real.
— Paul Ben-Itzak
“Tout rentré dans l’ordre,” etching and intagliio, Raoul Velasco of the Association l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire in Belleville, Paris.