Sunday, July 13, 2008

Colvin In Paris Part One: At Home At The Movies

My Out 1 blogging hiatus is over. I’ve spent the past month studying the works of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and other American expatriates with a group of fellow collegiate Kentuckians in Paris, just southeast of the Latin Quarter, and smack dab in the middle of arguably the most cinephilic city in the world – but I’m glad to be back and glad to be writing about film again.

In Paris, I was displaced, detached from home, listless, restless and lonely. But even in a foreign city, living a foreign lifestyle, I found comfort and familiarity – in the tiny theatres that dotted every street corner near La Sorbonne, Odéon, and St-Michel, where the 24fps clickity-click of projectors reminded me what my rhythm was. I dwelled in the dark, sloping rooms of Le Champo and the Accattone 14, nestled in extraordinarily soft, well-cushioned seats, peering over the heads of elderly Parisians and eager students in packed salles, all of us gathered for a screening of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942) or Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), all of us feeling every scratch, skip and flicker of the contemporary manifestation of Plato’s cavernous prototype, joined in the romantic communion of engaged spectatorship. Hemingway famously wrote that Paris was “a movable feast,” and I would argue, from experience, that cinema is equally trans-spatial and equally sustaining, imbuing its observers with a capacity for vibrant recall that can soothe a drifting heart, transport a wandering mind, and recreate a foundation of familiarity, or at least the sensation of one, which may be even more valuable. Cinema, without a doubt, was my Parisian home away from home.

The first film I saw in the City of Lights was Zabriskie Point (1970), Michelangelo Antonioni’s darkly comic exploration of hippiedom, violence, sex and the social liberation, revolution, and deconstruction of late 60s American society. The film is hard to track down in the US, particularly if one wants a high-quality version, and I was fortunate enough to see a brand-spanking-new print in its original aspect ratio, playing at Le Champo, one of the premier cinemas in Paris. My friend Sam came along and we verbally fumbled our way into attaining our tickets before descending, along with a sizeable group of prospective Antonioni fans, past a pop-art portrait of Audrey Hepburn and down a small set of black carpeted stairs where we found our salle. I plunked a 2 euro coin into a vending machine and indulged in a Bueno bar before taking my seat beside Sam, who had never seen an Antonioni film. This was exciting, I thought.

The film began. I was surprised at the vibrancy of the colors and the immediate pungency of the images and action, in which overlapping billboards, hilariously pseudo-intelligent Marxist posturing, and ferociously capitalistic Americana had replaced the stark European architecture, enigmatically sparse dialogue, and existential languidness of Antonioni’s most famous films: L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962), all of which were showing at Le Champo that week. Zabriskie Point’s humor was subtle, and revealed Antonioni’s underused talent for directing comedy – the source of which may have been the addition of Sam Shepard’s input to Tonino Guerra’s consistently excellent scripting, having served as the screenwriter for all of Antonioni’s films since L’Avventura. The French audience members all unleashed their chuckles a few seconds after Sam and I, and with much less gusto, which made me wonder exactly how good the subtitle translation was and how much of the comedic edge was being lost, or whether the French were merely more reserved in their willingness to crack-up in a theatre. Either way, seeing the film with a foreign audience was pretty cool.

I hadn’t told Sam about the film’s explosive finale, so he was happily shocked and we walked out of the theater at around midnight, him muttering “fuckin’ awesome” and “what a crazy movie” as I smiled and smiled. It was far from my favorite Antonioni film, but I was happy that Sam had liked it and that maybe he had been sparked. As we walked to the nearest Metro stop, I felt leveled, gelled by the cinema, more cohesive and considerably relieved. I mentioned to Sam that we should go back and see The Passenger later that week; he was enthused, a freshly converted Antonionian, and suggested we make our way over to the Cinémathèque Française, perhaps the most renowned cinema museum in the world, in the next few days. So, we did.

When Sam and I entered the doors of the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque, I was so startled that I forgot to hand the attendee my ticket, prompting him to ask, “billet?” Once I handed him my ticket, the man ripped it slightly, ratifying my presence, and handed it to me as I felt my eyes trying to roll out of their sockets to explore all of the cinematographic relics displayed in glass cases. Kinetoscopes, zoopraxiscopes, and chronophotographic guns sat unassumingly against walls and in corners, shocking in their proximity and, in a few instances, able to be used. I watched Edison’s Black Maria films (c. 1894), cranking a kinetoscope gleefully and walked around and around in rooms that held replicas of the Lumières’ camera and in which silent shorts were projected on the walls, ceilings, and floors. It was almost overwhelming. I was almost unconsciously providing an enthusiastic commentary on everything we were seeing for Sam’s benefit, whether he liked it or not. Words and facts were just pouring out of me. I felt like a child and my heart was beating faster as we progressed through the museum, moving out of early roadshow posters for Birth of a Nation (1915) and approaching the Soviet and German area.

As we turned the corner into the rooms of Eisenstein, Vertov, Murnau, Weine, and Lang, I immediately caught a glimpse of the Metropolis (1927) robot, brightly lit and shiny – I almost fainted. I had to completely turn around, my back to the piece of cinematic history, and face it a second time. I started trembling a bit, and I don’t even like Metropolis all that much. I veered to my right to observe the colorful costumes from Ivan the Terrible, Part One (1944) and Ivan the Terrible, Part Two (1958, produced in 1946), as well as the original set design sketches for ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1979, shot in 1931-32), taking a breather from the Expressionistic punch in the chest I had just received. Man With A Movie Camera (1929) was projecting on a nearby wall and as I crossed into the German room, I watched it out of the corner of my eye.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919) and Metropolis dominated the entire Expressionist area. I got a better look at Rotwang’s robot as scenes from the film flickered on the floor beneath me. I had to breathe deeply. The geometric complexity and gothic futurism of Caligari’s art direction layouts and drawings were incredible and mesmerizing. But we had to get moving – the museum was closing soon and we still had an entire special exhibition on Méliès to discover. The last section we perused in the permanent collection was the avant-garde portion, which featured artifacts from some of my favorite films and filmmakers, including experimentalists Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, and Man Ray. To top it off, the last object I saw before we delved into Méliès was the black-and-white-striped box carried by the protagonist of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929). I imagined their hands on it. I could see the scuffs and dirt marks that implied wear, use, and history. It was the former property of two of the greatest artistic geniuses of the 20th century and I was so very close to it. That brought me to tears. I remember saying, “Oh my God” over and over again and trying to communicate to Sam why it was all so moving for me. I couldn’t though, I just muttered on about surrealism and mules on pianos and bisected eyeballs. I couldn’t express the sheer power of Buñuel’s magic. It had to be seen and felt, I told him.

Fortunately, Sam was able to see and feel all of the playful glory of Georges Méliès’ diabolically clever films via the extensive, career-spanning exhibition on the seventh floor of the Cinémathèque. Endless amounts of impressive props, imaginative illustrations, and a scale model of Méliès’ studio highlighted the multi-room display and Sam and I took in four or five of the French master’s short films before coming to the exhibition’s focal point: A Trip to the Moon (1902) playing in a loop and being projected on a huge wall. We stood leaning against the glass of the display cases and watched the film twice. Sam was absorbed. I watched his eyes get big, wowed by the visual bravura of Méliès groundbreaking work, which was, as the visitor’s guide claimed, the precursor to the effects wizardry of Spielberg, Lucas, and countless others. Ushered out promptly at 7:00 pm (or 19 h) by the attendant, we walked out of the museum, chatting about how Méliès did it and why nobody else could ever do it quite like he did – a natural illusionist. Sam remarked, “I need to see more of that guy’s stuff.” I suggested he check YouTube. Paris had once again flexed its culturally-inspiring muscle and the cinematic camaraderie between Sam and I had become solid. I was grateful to the city. But I didn’t reach my personal moment of movie epiphany until I went to a theatre alone a few weeks later – stuck in the dark with Woody Allen.

by Brandon Colvin


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Wonderful post described your adventures with a real vivid and infectious blend of wit, style and heart that has me yearning for more. I am especially intrigued by that last line there and I hope you will post your thoughts on THE PASSENGER, which is just about my favorite film from M.A., as well.
By the way, have you ever heard what the last shot was supposed to be for ZABRISKI POINT? Apparently there was a closing shot of a plane carrying a banner that had written on it the delightful, "America, Fuck Off!!!"...needless to say the Studio didn't go for it and the maestro never shot in the States again...Great spirited post.

Brandon Colvin said...

I actually have heard about that original last shot. Man, it would've been awesome.

I LOVE THE PASSENGER, by the way. I don't elaborate on it any more in part 2, but that film moves me very powerfully. I especially like the scenes that take place in the Antonio Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. I love Gaudi's architecture. And the famous window shot - I mean, it doesn't get much more breathtaking than that. THE PASSENGER always leaves me very empty, however. It's a sort of a revelation that echoes hollow in my chest and tastes like dirt, and I mean that in the best way possible.

w. said...

i will use this phrase again:


antonioni and paris? i'm officially more than jealous.

when i was in italy i was only so fortunate to see "a prairie home companion" (dubbed) and "romance and cigarettes." who wins?