Why I Love Paris: The Seventh Art

  The city of Paris is to the spirit of cinema what the city of LA is to the business of it. That spirit is all encompassing, covering the city completely rather than being contained within one of its numerous salles obscures. It floods every boulevard, rises to the glorious heights of Gustave Eiffel’s Tower and stretches lazily across to the tip of the white-domed glory of the Sacré-Coeur. It is the Paris you take back home with you, along with the trinkets and nonsense. It is the Paris in all those black and white photographs; the Paris that seeps inside of you and never leaves. It is, in fact, the very reason why Paris is considered the most romantic city in the world; whilst LA is considered the phoniest. And don’t presume here that we are talking about the French passion for French cinema alone; of some sordid French love affair with itself. We’re talking about the French love of world-cinema. Going off track a little, I once read an article claiming — perhaps a little wildly — that for a long time the French stuck only to their own modern philosophers and were hard pressed to begin publishing and discussing works from outside sources. That is hard to swallow, but I do like the idea that the French love of cinema overpowered any desire to shut out world movies, to shut out the magic, even whilst the discovery of the meaning of life was being held at bay until they figured it out for themselves! Cinema is everywhere here, brooding, romantic, classy, rather than huge, expensive and gaudy. And if you don’t go to it voluntarily, it surrounds you like a magic fog and takes you anyway. When I first came to Paris (violins ready please), clutching a one-way ticket, with no friends, no job, no French, no idea of what to expect or do, cinema sought me out even as I sat brooding in a tiny room and taught me what Paris meant. That first hotel room was so small that if you entered it too quickly you banged your head against the far wall. Apart from rubbing your forehead, there wasn’t one hell of a lot to do in there. Then one night I saw that somebody was trying my door and I heard a lot of noise beyond. I pulled the door open and found myself confronting the main cast of a low-budget movie who had, because there was no number on my door, mistaken me for a toilet. After convincing them that I wasn’t a toilet, they befriended me. And so my thoughts had turned to movies. (That and asking for a door number!) Martin Scorsese was quite rightly praised for “Taxi Driver” and the bulk of that praise turned on the fact that his movie was experienced by many in the way that a literary novel is experienced, as if serious literature had been properly expressed through the medium for the first time. Personally I find the bulk of serious French films give exactly that experience. The best of them — subjectively speaking — “Betty Blue” or Diane Kurys’s gorgeous, dancing, dreaming song of a movie, “Les Enfants du Siècle” take you into the inner world of their characters seemingly without contrivance or discernible effort. This can have a powerful, emotional effect. Coming from a small town, eight or nine miles from the nearest cinema, to suddenly finding myself surrounded by cinema-houses and images of stars I had always loved – Marilyn; Cagney; Jimmy Dean; Audrey Hepburn; Chaplin – stunned me. And with my interest awakened by the moviestars living in my crumbling hotel, I started drifting off the streets and through the doors to the movies. Coming to Paris and not grabbing a copy of ‘Pariscope’ from a street vendor and checking out the lists of movies, festivals, reprises, ciné enfants for the kids, or just the latest blockbusters, is a bit like getting to a place, taking the photos and buying the tokens, and not bothering to experience it. Having said that, the thrill of walking into a movie when what you know about it is limited to the poster outside, can be extremely rewarding. I first tried this with an American movie called “Boys Don’t Cry.” It reminded me of the song by eighties pop group “The Cure,” so I went in. Having absolutely no idea that the main male character was actually a female, I swore out loud from shock when it was revealed. And as the whole thing descended into tragedy, I began to get a sick feeling that I was watching a true story. The notes at the end confirmed that feeling, and it was a powerful, shocking experience, which taught me just how badly the publicity machines can detract from the viewing experience during the process of seducing us through the doors. I’ll bet I was the only person who didn’t already know the story. Drumming up interest in a trip to the movies back in England had never been easy. But in Paris, having started work as a removals operative, I turned up to the company “office” — a café near The Bourse in the centre of Paris — at 7.30 one morning, raving about “Fight Club”. Within three minutes I’d gathered a group of seven or eight people, made up of nationalities ranging from British, American, Australian, French, Irish, to German, who agreed to head straight for a showing after work. God only knows what the other cinemagoers thought as we tramped into the cinema that night, but it was a love of the movies that had brought us there. The longer I spent in Paris, the more I felt I was living in a movie. When I found a place to live, it was with a director’s assistant, a dedicated woman whose living room was often covered with studio photographs of actors, male and female, desperate to break into the movies, even just as extras. The power of the medium was everywhere. One day I saw some guys hanging nervously around the post-boxes inside the entrance. When I walked between them and opened my box, they all but jumped; then they began asking if I knew the director’s assistant, speaking her name as if it were holy. They seemed in awe of me, just because I knew her, so I took their photographs and details. It was strange to be treated like…
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