Movies love Paris: Gigi, Charade, An American
. 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
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
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.
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.