Flick City

By Adam Blair

Movies love Paris: Gigi, Charade, An American in… . And in real life, Paris loves movies. This is an utterly unscientific statement, based on nothing more than a few visits, but I feel pretty certain that it's true.

Paris as a city still has a few kinks to work out. They really need a leash law, and in fact I think they recently passed one, but it's not enforced very stringently. Nothing spoils a lighthearted stroll down the Boulevard St. Germain than wiping dog poop off your travelin' shoes, a strong likelihood unless you step carefully.

But in a variety of other areas Paris is so much better organized, and so much friendlier to visitors, than New York or almost any other American city, that the mind actually boggles. There is a commuter train that actually goes directly to Paris' main airports (Charles de Gaulle and Orly.) Not near the airport, or to a bus stop or monorail connection, but to the actual terminal. And it's a regular train, with annoying accordion players whose repertoire consists mostly of "Yesterday" and "La Vie en Rose," that Parisians take every day to get in from their burbs and around the city. It doesn't just stop at one train station in the middle of town, either, but at several locations.

And the Metro - the Paris subway - is also designed, God help us, intelligently. The subway map looks like a mess of multi-colored strands of spaghetti, but it's actually fairly simple. Each line is numbered and color-coded. And there's incredibly generous signage in the stations: they don't say things like "uptown" and "downtown" or "Queens" but they ACTUALLY LIST THE STATIONS, IN ORDER, THAT EACH TRAIN STOPS AT. And these signs are not only on the platform, they are intelligently placed throughout the station. On the platform, there are plenty of subway, train and bus maps, as well as vending machines that actually work.

And the movies (you thought I'd forgotten, didn't you). Parisian movie theaters do several things I wish U.S. theaters would adopt immediately. For one thing, they list two times in association with each movie: the show time and the time when the movie actually starts, generally 10-15 minutes later. So if you want to skip the combination of commercials and previews (which themselves can be pretty cool), you can arrive just in time for the actual film to start.

For English-speaking visitors, there are a lot of English-language movies at Parisian theaters, usually subtitled in French. These are identified with the letters "V.O.," for "Version Originale."

But the most remarkable thing a Parisian movie theater did for me was to simply show a classic old film, which I saw on my free night during a business trip. There it was, on the marquee with Bowling for Columbine and The Bourne Identity : Le Dictateur , or as we non-amphibians call it, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator .

The joy that ran through me when I saw this sign - and I didn't quite believe it at first, it seemed so strange to see a 1940 film cheek-by-jowl with the crop of 2002 pictures - was only partly because I wanted to see the film. It was a joy tinged with jealousy: why doesn't my local multiplex occasionally show, say, City Lights , or Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. , or The More the Merrier , with Jean Arthur and sexy Joel McCrea? I'm not asking for this all the time or at every theater, just once in a while as a treat. How is it a Paris movie theater can manage this mix and U.S. theaters can't?

Yes, there are still invaluable theaters like Film Forum in New York City, and even suburban art-house theaters, and I do love them, bad sight lines, uncomfortable chairs and all. But my point is, why do old movies have to be segregated into a shrinking revival-house ghetto? Why can't they live out in the marketplace with Jackass: The Movie and Mission: Impossible ?

I've heard many explanations for this: people can rent these old movies on video and DVD, so the audience for these classics hasn't shrunk, it's just gotten old and housebound. Or the strictly economic one: it's so expensive to build and operate a multiplex theater that the operators need to attract audiences, and they can't do that with old movies. Horseshit, I say. Multiplexes have, by definition, a lot of theater spaces, big and small. They make a lot of their money not from ticket sales but from concessions, and if they could attract a different audience - one that hasn't found a lot of reason to get off the couch recently - they could sell overpriced candy, popcorn and lattes to them. It's just a failure of imagination on many people's parts that Paris has something that the U.S. doesn't.

As for The Great Dictator : I think it's not quite top-rank Chaplin (my favorites are The Gold Rush and Modern Times .) But not-quite-great Chaplin is still about 10 times better than most of the crap that gets spewed out onto screens. Chaplin plays two roles: a Jewish barber (essentially his Little Tramp character) and Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania.

First is the fact of the film itself. Produced and released before America's entry into World War II, it show's Chaplin's chutzpah in taking on Hitler as a satirical target. I was reminded of a heartbreaking scene in Michael Chabon's wonderful novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," where the main character (a young Jewish escapee from the Nazis who has made his way to New York City in 1940, but whose family is still trapped in Europe). He wants the cover of his new superhero comic book to show Hitler being felled by a monstrous sock on the jaw. No, says his cowardly publisher, we still sell comic books in Germany. You can't show that. The timidity of the marketplace was, I'm sure, alive and well in Hollywood as well.

Another thing that comes through in The Great Dictator is how alone Chaplin is on screen. In his most memorable scenes he partners with objects, or people being treated as objects. There's the justly famous balloon-globe ballet, when Hynkel's dreams of world domination are expressed in a pas de deux with an inflated world. Hynkel stares at this world with real, intense love, not a parody of ballet-dancer posing. He sends it aloft with the gentlest little arch of his butt. His disappointment when his partner bursts is palpable.

Chaplin's barber character has similar trouble connecting (even though he's supposedly falling in love with Chaplin's real-life love, Paulette Goddard, who plays a spunky girl named Hannah). Another musical set piece has his barber character shaving a customer to the exact, rather violent rhythms of Brahms' Hungarian Rhapsody. The customer's face is lathered and shaved by Chaplin's expert hands, slapped up, down, and around, but the barber might as well be in another world, as indeed he is.

I wonder if Chaplin made his Hynkel a reflection of his own isolation as a movie star. Certainly there's the same crowd of toadies, the constant need for reassurance, the concern with image. When Hynkel has a few seconds free in his hyper-busy day, he strides into a room where a painter and sculptor are kept waiting, hoping for a few seconds of pose time so they can work on his never-finished portrait and bust. But all they ever get are a few seconds - he's always strutting off to oppress the Jews or double-cross someone again before they can paint a stroke or mold an eyebrow.

I'm not equating Chaplin (or any other pampered, egotistical star) with Hitler, merely saying that in order to access him as well as he did, it seems Chaplin found a common thread - isolation. And maybe it takes someone with an ego the size of Chaplin's to make a film about the egotism - so huge and so easily wounded - of a "great" dictator.

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