Thursday, February 2, 2012

Time travel

Walking to the train the other night, I was thinking about how much I'd love to step into a time machine and visit State Street in its heyday, if only for a few hours. By sheer coincidence, when I got home, my wife suggested we watch Woody Allen's latest movie, the time travel fantasy; Midnight in Paris.

In case you don't know the premise, it's about an American named Gil who falls in love with Paris while on a trip with his fiance and her rich, staunchly Republican parents. He's a Hollywood screenwriter who would gladly give up his big salary to move into a garret in Montmartre and write novels. His dream falls on the deaf ears of his pathologically insensitive girlfriend. As she is wined and dined by her folks and by an insufferable professor with whom she openly has a crush, our hero wanders the streets of the city, losing himself in its charms. One night, at the stroke of midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up and out come some drunken revelers who beckon him to join them. The car turns out to be a time machine that takes him to a place he's always wanted to visit, Cafe Society of 1920s Paris. Two of his fellow passengers in the car turn out to be Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In fact the entire populaion of his destination is made up of a who's who of celebrities who set foot in Paris in the 1920s, Piccaso, Matisse, Cole Parter, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, just to name a few. Gil gets a few pointers on his craft from Ernest Hemingway, who refuses to read the novel the time traveller is working on, but suggests he take it to his friend Gertrude Stein for some ideas. I have to admit I had some difficulty with the fact that nowhere in this fantasy does Gil meet the likes of ordinary Parisians like Jacques LePlombier, but what the heck, it's Woody Allen's fantasy, not mine.

Anyway, the real star of the movie is Paris, the contemporary city that perhaps more than any other can equally serve as the setting for a movie set in the present, the 1920s, or the Belle Époch of the 1890s, a period the film briefly visits. Time hasn't exactly stood still in Paris, not by a long shot, yet there is a timelessness to that city, a seamlessness between the past and the present that I never experienced anywhere else. Paris is Paris, what more can one say, it's just as lovely as it appears in the photographs and paintings, perhaps the most photogenic city in the world.

Yet where London and New York are cities of endless variety, Paris is a city of almost stultifying regularity. I can think of no better illustration than the opening sequences of two Woody Allen movies. Midnight in Paris opens with a series of shots of the city accompanied by a song played the great Sydney Bechet. You can view it here. Lovely isn't it? Clearly Allen loves Paris madly.

Compare it to his love letter to New York City, the opening sequence of the film Manhattan, (in my opinion Woody Allen's one truly great movie). In Manhattan, Allen's voiceover as well as the images, reveal conflicting feelings about his hometown. I think it's one of the most beautiful opening sequences in all of film, in less than four minutes he does a masterful job describing the urban experience in all its flavors, from awe and wonder to the tawdry and decadent. By contrast, in the opening of Midnight... , every shot is more beautiful than the the one that came before it. If there is a darker side to Paris, we don't see it.

This is not the Paris of Sydney Carton or Jean Valjean. Of course that's not Woody Allen's fault, their city is long gone, destroyed by the mother of all urban renewal projects, Georges-Eugéne Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. Much of the Paris we know today, the boulevards and traffic circles, the railway stations, the Bois du Bologne, the Opera, are a result of Baron Haussmann's plan which itself was a great influence on Daniel Burnham's plan of Chicago of 1911. Had the Burnham Plan been fully realized, Chicago today would look a great deal like Paris.

But I digress. Haussmann was commissioned by Napoleon III to rebuild Paris. Ostensibly it was an attempt to modernize the city by introducing new technologies such as the railroad, improve the flow of traffic, and ridding the city of filth, disease and poverty. The old meandering streets from Medieval times and the ancient, dilapidated apartment buildings were replaced by modern buildings and systematically planned boulevards. In that vein the project was not unlike the urban renewal projects that took place in the United States during the mid twentieth century. Another, less publicized goal of the project was to improve the security of the government. The great boulevards served as conduits to facilitate the mobilization of troops in the event of insurrection, (an ever present threat at the time), and also reduced the number of hiding places for the insurrectionists. The effort accomplished all its goals, the old city was gone and with it went the filth and disease. Haussmann's plan solved the problem of poverty in Paris by replacing existing housing with middle and upper income level housing, thereby dispatching the less fortunate to the outskirts of town where they remain to this day. Depending on which side you are on, Haussmann either saved Paris, or destroyed it. An idea of what was lost can be had from checking out the work of photographer Charles Marville who was commissioned to document the soon to be lost city.

What cannot be denied is that Hausmann's genius triumphs, given that 150 years after the execution of his plan, Paris remains a charmingly beautiful city and, despite the notorious French bureaucracy, the old contraption still runs splendidly after all these years.

My first experience of Paris was in 1993, when I had the great fortune of being able to take my half sister Eva, an artist who lived her entire life in Czechoslovakia, for her first visit. Like Gil, she dreamed of Paris, but for obvious reasons, was never able to go. We wasted no time, after getting off the train from Prague at the Gare de l'Est, our first visit was the Louvre. You enter the museum through the contemporary I.M. Pei Pyramid then descend into an underground passage which takes you into the museum proper. Nothing prepares you for the jolt you receive when you emerge from the passageway and find yourself in a cavernous gallery filled with paintings by David, Ingres, Girodet and a slew of other great French masters, each painting about the size of a mid-sized room, hung salon style, covering the entire four walls of the gallery. Laying her eyes upon the room, my sister broke out in tears. Her dream had finally come true. I'll keep that moment with me the rest of my life.

Eva, right, with our friend Sabrina
My own dream would come true later that day when we visited heart of Paris, the Île de la Cité. For years I had an interest in Gothic architecture and yearned to visit the cathedrals of Europe, especially the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I had known at least theoretically, inside and out. But I did not know as well the jewel of Sainte-Chapelle, the high gothic chapel built for the palace of King Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the thirteenth century to house some of the most precious relics of Christiandom. The chapel proper sits in the middle of a complex of government buildings and the view of the exterior has been obscured in recent times (by Parisian standards) by those buildings. Since it's government property, you must pass through stringent security, no doubt much worse today than when we visited. But like entering the Louvre, the inauspicious start makes the payoff all the better. You enter Sainte Chapelle through the lower chapel which is devoted to the Virgin. Openings for small stained glass windows made possible by low vaulted ceilings held up with finely crafted columns, make for a space which defines the very character of Gothic architecture. Impressive as it is, the lower chapel doesn't come close to preparing you for what's to come. A blast of multicolored light awaits you as you ascend the narrow stairway that leads to the upper chapel. Here the stained glass windows extend from a few feet off the floor, up nearly five stories to the ceiling, and are divided by only the narrowest of columns. A magnificent rose window adorns the west wall. Opposite is the apse with its high altar also held up with only minimal support. The space is etherial, it's almost as if the whole thing were supported by angel dust, which for all we know, it very well could be. One of my distinct memories of the chapel was standing near the stairway and listening to the gasps of the visitors as they saw it for the first time. It was as if those folks, myself included, were catching their first glimpse of heaven.

When Eva visited Chicago about 25 years ago, she had a few surprises. One day she asked me with a straight face: "Where are all the gangsters?" There are no such surprises in Paris, you can find every stereotypical image imaginable, from a boy sitting on the back of his mom's bike carrying a baguette, to the guy wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette, and playing the concertina on the banks of the Seine. One of my most humorous moments was attending an organ recital in the cathedral and in between music by Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen the organist played, I'm not kidding, variations on the theme of the song Alouette.

Paris may be predictable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't wildly surpass your expectations. No photograph or description can capture its true beauty. For that reason I didn't take pictures inside Sainte Chapelle, there was simply no point. As you might expect, there's no better city on earth to fall in love, I did that at least twice during my first visit. Years later, my wife (whom I hadn't yet met before my first trip, in case you were wondering) and I had a very romantic few days there, sans kids. Any other place in the world it would sound trite to say: "this is a city where you fall in love with life." But not Paris, every cliché you've heard about the place is true, and with a vengence.

One needn't step into a time machine like Gil to visit the past, it's all around you, not preserved as a museum, like it is in Florence, but as much a part of life as the Parisian air or the wine they drink. You can dine at the same establishments that Hemingway and Picasso did in the 1920s, even the ones that Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec did in the 1890s. The servers, yes they're still predominantly men, wear the same uniform they did back then, and you still call them "boy" (garçon). And yes they still dance the cancan at the Moulin Rouge, although mostly just for tourists these days. In Paris you can worship in the same church where people worshiped over 1,000 years ago (the locals don't do much of that either), and the most impressive structure in town is still M. Eiffel's 120 year old Tower.

If you are searching for the soul of the city, short of going and seeing it for yourself, read Balzac, Zola and Hugo. For a more rounded cinematic experience than Woody Allen's postcard version, you have many choices. Since to me Paris will always be in black and white and set in the sixties, a good place to start would be with the French New Wave directors. Breathless, by Godard and the wonderful The 400 Blows by Truffaut are two classic films from that remarkably fruitful period. If you're looking for a more contemporary take on the city, by all means see the 2006 film Paris Je t'aime, an anthology of 18 five minute films each by a different director and each set in a different arrondisssement around town.

There may be other cities I prefer, still I can't help but think what a poorer place our world would be without Paris. In a famous scene from an old movie, Rick Blaine says to his beloved Ilsa as she is about to board a plane with her husband, leaving him and Casablanca behind for good:

"We'll always have Paris."

Thank God for that.

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