Among the most successful lots in Artcurial’s May 30 Limited Edition auction in Paris was Keith Haring (1958 – 1990)’s 1988 color screenprint “Apocalypse IV – 1988.” Signed, dated, and numbered “41/90,” the 95 x 95 print sold for 7,800 Euros, double the 3,000 – 4,000 pre-sale estimate. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
PARIS – The other argument against calling a show the worse you’ve ever seen is that it leaves you with nowhere to go if a challenger shows up. So the only way I have to give you an idea of how much worse Teatro Praga’s “Zululuzu,” seen in its May 31 opening at the Abbesses — the Theatre de la Ville’s Montmartre station — was than Tiago Rodrigues’s “Ce soir won’t ever repeat,” seen the previous Thursday at the Bastille, is to report that for the first time in 20 years of reviewing opening nights, I passed on the free buffet afterwards because it would have meant staying until the end and I couldn’t take another minute. This was after enduring five minutes of having several rows of lights glaring at me (and my fellow audients), amped up at the request of a performer whose invective, following harangues by all the cast members against the black box theater in general and the audience’s expectations in particular, had descended into railing against who knows what, as he was railing in Portuguese and the lights were too bright to be able to read the French super-titles. Even Maguy Marin was not safe from being lamely lampooned, probably because she does what Teatro Praga does not, in making madcap dance-theater that is actually about something besides the theater. According to the brochure for the Theatre de la Ville’s city-wide Chantiers d’Europe festival of which it is a part, “ZuluLuzo” was supposed to be “a surprising portrait of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, based on his early years in South Africa.” (Zulu standing for S.A. and Luzo for Lusitanie, the ancient name for Portugal.) ‘Surprising’ being the operative word, as it was only when we got to the theater that were we handed a program in which one of Teatro Praga’s directors admitted that Pessoa was “practically a pretext” to explore ideas related to “post-structuralism, that is to say gender studies, post-colonialism, and queer theory.” I guess this last would be where a banner dedicated to Harvey Milk fit in, one of more than a score introduced by a hot-pantsed fey disco duo, also including Anne Frank, Pablo Escobar, Nelson Mandela, and Nelson Mandela’s pop-star niece Brenda Fasse. In other words, between the railing and the banner pageant, it was the grand n’importe quoi. It was as if the directors and writers (the cast for the most part) had decided to expunge every chip on their shoulder and toss them at the audience, only here it was the therapists who had paid to listen to the patients’ tantrums. And here, as their main issue appears to be with being on a stage, the simple solution would have been to get out of the theater – which, after all, is a privileged space, platform, and opportunity not to be squandered on self-indulgent self-confirming rambling. As they didn’t, I did.
Fortunately, I had a back-up, or front-end, plan Tuesday night, having signed up to see this piece in part because it provided an excuse for my first excursion to Montmartre in several months, as well as for a drizzly afternoon promenade along the Canal Ourcq and the Bassin La Villette to get there. Along the way I passed a pasture of a dozen solitary zinc chairs outside the parc La Villette which, I discovered, swiveled 360 degrees, so that you can regard the green grass or the braquish water, reminding me of the seats in the observation lounge of Amtrak’s California Zephyr which let you look at either the Colorado river or the mountain precipitating above you as you careen under them. In Paris, these single-seating units have been replacing benches all over town – in Metro stations, on the Grandes Boulevards, in public parks — because homeless people can’t sleep on them. (If Georges Simenon were writing the Maigret adventure “The Man on the Bench” today – involving a victim’s repeated rendezvous on a bench around the Grandes Boulevards — he would need to find another title.)
But it was when a horizon of black umbrellas surged forth, on the très Montmartrois rue Durantin leading from Van Gogh / Amelie’s Lepic and turning into Tourlaque, where Toulouse-Lautrec once painted, that the Satie music kicked in on the turntables of my mind. (The composer spent 15+ years living on the Butte Montmartre, at 12 rue Cortot.) I was headed for a bookstore called L’Attrape-Coeurs, probably after the inexplicable French title for J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” (which, literally translated, would be “Attrape-Siegle”), hosting a vernissage for the latest edition of a food-wine review called 180, accompanied by food and wine degustations. I would go to this particular bookstore even if the only degustation offered was of rye baguettes (as long as they did not contain caraway seeds) (Fred Allen: “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, stuff it into a flea’s brain and still have room left over for an agent’s heart and a caraway seed.”) , because of its location facing the Square Constantin Pecqueur and what I refer to as the Parc Steinlen for the giant statue lording over it of the illustrious cat illustrator, who lived nearby on Caulaincourt. En route and still on Durantin, I was way-laid by a thin bearded man in a turtleneck and suede jacket sipping from, in memory of Utrillo, a glass of red wine (a man who turned out to be the artist, Shumanskij), beckoning to me to enter the miniscule I-Gallery, where his coal etchings of partial nude women were being displayed. (That’s not a typo; the portraits were not full-featured.) Once inside a woman who spoke a Slavic language (like most everyone else) as well as French offered me a heaping (real) glass of Rhone, which I soaked up with cubes of marinated feta…. Already pleasantly if only slightly marinated, I left and hiked up to Caulaincourt, the upward-winding tree-lined street which has always reminded me of the hills of Berkeley, California. At the bookstore, having failed to impress the editor of 180 when he poured me a glass of “natural” red from Beziers and I boasted that I’d worked the vendange at a “natural” winery in the Lot, and more marinated, I decided to look for errors in the magazine, and it wasn’t long before I found an article referring to the “new” and “strange” U.S. trend of chicken and waffles. After leaving the page open and failing to find an ear into which I could pronounce, “Not new,” I asked the owner if she had any Leo Malet. “Desuet” (obsolete), she declared, not necessarily her judgment but her assessment of how the public sees the father of the French ‘polaire’ and Nestor Burma, Shock Detective, a sort of proletarian Maigret, launched in a German prisoner of war camp with “102, rue de la Gare” in 1942. (Malet was also a compagnon de route of the Surrealists, particularly invested in the art of street poster collage. Attrape-Coeurs does have Tardi’s comics version of “102…”) “Most prefer Simenon,” she added. While her sentiment fit in with the location, considering that the Square Constantin Pecqueur was also the beat of Inspector Lognon, a.k.a. “L’inspecteur Malgracieux,” Maigret’s main man in Montmartre, Malet’s Burma has rien or very little a voir with Simenon’s Maigret. If Maigret/Simenon likes to immerse himself in the ambiance of the milieu’s he’s investigating, Malet/Burma is part of the milieu, his novels – particularly the “Mysteries of Paris,” a series of novels set in and appropriately colored by the city’s various arrondissements — full of jargon and word-play with the jargon whose deftness would make Boris Vian jealous.
Then I spotted a translation of the Joseph Mitchell opus, in the U.S. titled “Up in the Old Hotel,” a compendium of Mitchell’s New Yorker pieces, promenades into New York history as viewed from the 1930s through ‘90s, perhaps most famously in my memory his account of McSorley’s Ale House, New York’s oldest bar. Mitchell had photographic recall when it came to recording interviews, and his tales – of an old hotel (encore le desuet), the Fulton fish market, and various denizens of New York straight out of Damon Runyon – were treasure maps that subsequent generations of nascent New Yorkers tried to follow to retrieve still extant if obscured corners of the New York of yester-year. After reading Mitchell’s story of the fishermen who took special orders from restaurants for the increasingly rare conch (in whose shell you can hear the sea roar), I set out on a scungilli quest, ultimately finding it at just two New York restaurants. (Which, these days, might be down to one.)
When I said I was impressed to see her stocking Mitchell, the owner introduced me to an associate, recently returned from her first visit to New York, who evidently shared my passion for one of my journalistic idols, who I’d previously thought was a specifically New York taste– and an author I’d not previously found in any French bookstore or heard anything of on numerous French radio literary programs. (As opposed to Attrape-Coeurs’s — which also features Dave Eggers, an institution in my hometown of San Francisco — the contemporary American literature list of many French bookstores is often reduced to Paul Auster and my former Princeton professor, Joyce Carol Oates, in my view over-rated in France. The specialists at Attrape-Coeurs have obviously done their homework to produce a deeper bench.) She also reminded me of an ongoing Mitchell chronicle I’d forgotten, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” an account of the saga of a marginalized Greenwich Village writer’s epic “Oral History of the World.” Basically, Darger before Darger. As we got to talking about the kind of New York ethnic neighborhoods that are fast disappearing, she brought me the encouraging news that Williamsburg is not as over-run by hipsters as I imagined, but still a rich mix of ethnic quartiers. And she reported that Mitchell’s book is ever omnipresent.
Have a dark McSorley’s for me Joe, up in the old hotel, while I continue to try to catch hearts.
PS: Another piece of my old New York was recently on sale at Artcurial, and it’s one that the navel-gazers of Teatro Praga would do well to study: Keith Haring’s screenprint “Apocalypse IV,” created in 1988, just two years before Haring died of AIDS at the age of 32. I don’t know much about “Queer Theory.” What I do know is that the “queers” whose thought and art and politics have managed to permeate society as a whole have done so with a broad, universalist, humanist, and inclusive approach and aesthetic. When Harvey Milk was running for San Francisco’s board of supervisors, he cut his hair and dressed up in a nice suit to campaign, a campaign based not just on gay rights (as important as these were, and as risky as this cause ultimately was for him), but on the rights of seniors and on the rights of San Franciscans and tourists to poop-free streets. (His greatest legacy may be the city’s pooper-scooper law, perhaps inspiring French president Jacques Chirac in a similar crusade years later.) Keith Haring may be an icon of New York’s Gay ‘80s, but (and like Harvey in the first case) his innocence and his craft is what ultimately made for his universal and lasting appeal. It isn’t enough to parade your sympathy for the outcasts and your outrage at society on stage, as the performer/writers of Teatro Praga did, and expect to be applauded just because your cause is righteous. You need to truly create.