When I threw my copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel across room 53 of the Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc (twin beds, bath, 95 euros a night), it was because Pantagruel and his friends were about to be attacked by a huge army of . . . chitterlings. I’d endured Rabelais’ over-the-top rowdiness as long as I could: Gargantua combing the cannonballs out of his hair after a battle, the pilgrims clinging to his teeth so they aren’t washed down in a flood of wine after Gargantua eats them in his salad, the six months that Alcofribas gets paid to sleep all day in the little village he happens upon inside Pantagruel’s head. But when the chitterlings lined up to attack, 42,000 strong and flanked by “a large force of game-puddings, stout dumplings, and mounted sausages,” I said to myself, Enough’s enough, and let fly.
Then retrieved my book and kept reading, because finally I was understanding France. I had lived in Paris a number of times before: twelve months across 1977 and ’78, six months in 1998, the summer of 2001, perhaps as many as a dozen shorter visits. Yet I had never asked myself why, which probably means I was enjoying myself; usually we don’t examine our pleasures unless they’re destructive ones, and even then only if we want to avoid them. Obviously, I wanted to keep coming back. Why, though? Why not someplace warmer and less expensive, a place where I could converse fluently? (Considerable effort notwithstanding, my French seems to be stuck permanently in second gear.)
This time, though, I intended to find out. I meant to discover what it was about France, and Paris in particular, that kept yanking me back. And I only had eight days to do so; Barbara and I had come to Paris over spring break, and we had to be back in the classroom the following Tuesday. But time, because it was brief, was on my side: in the past, I’d luxuriated thoughtlessly in French volupté, and now I meant to use my handful of days to force myself to come up with some answers.
In other words, I didn’t have time to make mistakes. But I’d need help. The trip was to be so short that I hadn’t even packed a nail clipper, though I did bring two guidebooks, though not the Fodor’s or Frommer’s kind; by now, I know the city too well. No, I brought the Penguin Classics editions of Gargantua and Pantagruel and Montaigne’s Essays, figuring that what I read there, combined with my personal experiences, would lead me to an understanding of the two pillars of French culture: pleasure and reason. This essay is an eight-day diary of my reading and experience, my observations and memories, and as I make my way through the pages of Rabelais and Montaigne as well as the boulevards and back alleys of Paris, I promise quick turns and abrupt halts as well as a return trip that culminates, I trust, in a soft landing.
As I figured a Frenchman would, I put pleasure first, and began to read Rabelais while our Air France flight was still in line for takeoff in Atlanta. And immediately stopped, because when I read translator J. M. Cohen’s description of Rabelais as “a man intoxicated by every sort of learning and theory, who had at the same time the earthy commonsense of a peasant,” I thought of our friend Claude, whom we would be seeing in Paris. Claude is a lawyer or avocat, the equivalent of a solicitor in England, but he is also a stage actor of considerable experience, a folklorist who for many years hosted a Saturday morning radio show in his beloved Vendée, a caviste with hundreds of bottles of excellent Bordeaux in his cellar, and an expert on the harvesting, preparation, and consumption of oysters and the other dozen edible crustaceans to be found in the cool Atlantic waters of the Normandy coast.
As both lawyer and actor, Claude, like Rabelais, “plays with words as children do with pebbles,” in the words of Anatole France; “he piles them into heaps.” Like Rabelais, Claude loves France and is troubled by it enough to view it satirically. In the great protest era of the sixties, I was always too troubled to participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for civil rights; I should have been strong enough to resist, but right-wing fury in the US is so powerful that it’s hard not to think that if you’re trying to change your country, you’re somehow opposed to it. In France, on the other hand, the almost daily manifestations you see in the streets are expressions of patriotism.
During my first long stay in Paris, my son Will went to a preschool where the PTA meetings were highly politicized, with parents actually saying what a good Christian Democrat would do about bathroom breaks. The school was open for half a day on Saturdays, and often the neighborhood communists would be on the corner, welcoming me with their signs (les communistes de votre voisinage vous accueillent) as well as with coffee and pastries, trying to persuade me and the others to see school politics their way. Now try to imagine going into a PTA meeting at Southside Elementary and walking past a sign that says, your neighborhood communists welcome you. In France, though, politics isn’t a matter of being right or wrong; it’s what everyone does, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t do it. There may be such a thing as a politically neutral person in France, but I haven’t met him or her yet.
Rabelais wasn’t concerned with individuals, writes Cohen; “he is not sufficient of a Renaissance man for that.” Born a generation before Montaigne (around 1494 as opposed to Montaigne’s 1533), Rabelais describes enormous egos, but having an ego is not the same as being an individual. The main characters in Gargantua and Pantagruel are ensemble players; Friar John, for example, is no more an individual than a midfielder on a soccer team or a cello player in an orchestra. No wonder Mikhail Bakhtin devoted an entire book to Rabelais. In Rabelais and His World, the Russian critic emphasizes the carnivalesque, for carnival is rumbustious, lawless, and open to members of every class of society. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist’s biography of Bakhtin says that, whereas others argued that they alone owned the meaning of things or that no one did, Bakhtin said, in effect, we all own the meaning.
Carnival is a drunken time; for everyone to own the meaning, it helps if they’re all a little tipsy. But though rivers of wine course through his narrative, “for François Rabelais,” writes Cohen, “the headiest liquor of all was the liquor of learning.” Indeed, the first sentence of “The Author’s Prologue” begins “Most noble boozers” and finishes with a reference to Plato’s Symposium. Both letters and carousing are given equal time in Rabelais’ world. Literally: the prologue concludes with the narrator’s avowal that he “never spent—or wasted—any more—or other—time in the composing of this lordly book, than that fixed for the taking of my bodily refreshment, that is to say for eating and drinking.”
Indeed, the twin notes of literature and booze are struck again in the very first pages of the book proper. As with many an older text, this one claims to have its origin in an accidental discovery: workers opening an Etruscan tomb topped by a goblet find nine flagons, and beneath the middle one is a “great, greasy, grand, grey, pretty, little, mouldy book.” Already Rabelais’ prose is drunk: how can a book be grand and little and pretty and mouldy at the same time? From this nonsense flows more: the whole second chapter is a riddle in verse, and after scratching my head over it, I came to Cohen’s footnote, which says “there is very little sense in this riddle. . . . We have not the answer, and probably there never was one.” A few chapters later, there is an extended inventory of the young Gargantua’s clothing, with a lengthy paragraph apiece on his shirt, doublet, hose, codpiece, shoes, cape, and so on, the details mounting so high that one becomes lost in them and is unable to form any picture at all of the giant. His father, Grandgousier, promises he’ll have Gargantua made “a Doctor of Gay Learning,” surely the right calling for so exaggerated a creature. Indeed, Gargantua and Pantagruel prescribes a curriculum for gay learning, and anyone who finishes it is entitled to claim his or her doctorate in that science.
By now the plane has leveled off over the ocean, and the flight attendants begin to offer beverages and pass around menus. One of the options is a cold express meal for those who would “travailler pendant le voyage.” I certainly don’t want to work during the trip, and to take the express meal would mean to forego the beef that is otherwise promised, and it hardly seems Rabelaisian of me to avoid beef. So I order a Campari and then a little bottle of red wine to go with my filet de boeuf and keep reading, alternating sips and sentences, as the master would have advised.
Two seats behind me, a woman begins to talk, first loudly and then more loudly still. The dinner things are cleared, the movie begins, and the woman continues to talk. I’m about 100 pages into Rabelais now, at the scene where Friar John is smiting his enemies and, again, the details are coming in waves: he beats out the brains of some, breaks the arms and legs of others, demolishes kidneys, slits noses, blackens eyes, dislocates thigh bones, and knocks heads to pieces “along the lambdoidal suture.” On and on the woman goes, her voice shrill above the ambient hum of the plane and its passengers. Why doesn’t someone seated closer than I am knock her head to pieces along the lambdoidal suture? The movie doesn’t interest me, and there will be no sleep as long as the woman yammers the night away, so since I’ve made a good start with Rabelais’ high-calorie prose, I figure it’s time to take a counterbalancing dose of Montaigne’s more ascetic fare.
The first glimpse we get of the sage of Bordeaux is his reflection in the mirror of his own prose. Montaigne is said to have invented the individual; we know that his essays greatly influenced Shakespeare, and it is hard to imagine a Richard III or Hamlet or Lear in a world in which Montaigne or someone very like him had not lived earlier. “To the Reader” tells us we are about to read (in M. A. Screech’s translation) a “book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one. I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design.”
Who is he kidding? Like Twain’s note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, warning readers not to read deeply into what has become one of the world’s most closely read texts, the seeming self-abasement in Montaigne’s preface has the opposite effect of its intent, if, in fact, it was intended to be self-abasing at all. “I myself am the subject of my book,” he concludes, and therefore “it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.” Properly warned, we do the only reasonable thing: we turn the page.
What we find inside is an extended examination of a mind at work. In his essay “On idleness,” Montaigne writes, “Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.” Maybe too much weight: on the next page, the mind begins to split hairs at a pulse-pumping rate as it distinguishes between defects due to weakness and defects due to wickedness.
This isn’t the first time anyone wrote or thought this way, of course; Aristotle did not begin the tradition of rational materialism in Western philosophy, though he became its best-known proponent over a period of more than 2,000 years. But it’s the first time anyone has written and thought precisely this way in centuries. When Montaigne begins reasoning in earnest in essays such as the one titled “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” the reader gets the sense of just how much this rich period in our history is a re-naissance; indeed, the footnotes are studded with references to Seneca, Lucretius, and the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who not only further the Aristotelian tradition but associate it with pleasure, as Montaigne does in this essay. (“Even in virtue our ultimate aim—no matter what they say—is pleasure,” he writes.) Small wonder that Shakespeare, that ardent sensualist, finds a soul mate in this master of reason; even the simplest electronic search gins up thousands of web pages, articles, and books linking the two authors.
By now it is almost six in the morning, and faint sunlight begins to make its way around the edges of the closed windows as the flight attendants creep down the aisle. Soon the interior lights come on, and the breakfast cart appears. I glance back at the woman who has been talking all night. Her husband is wearing an appliance in each ear; fortunately for him, if not for us, he is deaf.
* * * *
We make our way into the city and soon find ourselves in our hotel in that exhausted, exhilarated in-between state that travelers know well. At one point in Pantagruel’s wanderings, his friend Panurge falls in love with a great Parisian lady and offers to show her “Master John Thursday, who will play you a jig that you’ll feel in the very marrow of your bones. He’s a sprightly fellow, and he is so good at finding all the cracks and quirks and special spots in the carnal trap that after him there is no need of a broom.” When I bring up the subject of Master John and his pleasure-giving potential, Barbara gives me a blank stare, and soon we are shouldering our way through the streets on what, in retrospect, turns out to be a three-day binge on all our favorite haunts and a few new ones, at the end of which I more or less clatter to pieces like a poorly maintained Deux Chevaux, the adorable rattletrap of a car that looks as though it’s made of leftover aluminum siding.
On Tuesday morning I wake up exhausted, achy, and congested from my kid-in-a-candy-shop behavior of the past seventy-two hours, so I decide to put myself on what Montaigne calls “a diet of reason” and stay in for the day. The quote is from his essay “On solitude,” and, fittingly, Barbara throws herself back into the fray while I curl up with my books and over-the-counter cold medicine. But the intellectual food I eat is Rabelais: reason may keep me in, but I read for pleasure.
One of the pleasures that Rabelais teaches is that you don’t have to take anything or anyone seriously, including Rabelais. There’s a kind of happy pointlessness to much of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and whenever the opportunity arises, he does everything he can to promote one of the great joys of reading the classics: skimming. A number of chapters consist of little more than lists; in “Gargantua’s Games,” for example, the reader is told the giant played “at Flushes” and “at Primero” and then roughly 300 other games, all the way through to “Larks” and “Flip-finger.”(Here and below, I’ll approximate the number of items in the lists; to count them one by one would be for Rabelais to have a laugh, half a millennium after the fact, at my expense.) When Pantagruel goes to Paris to study, the card catalog of books available to him is listed and runs to some 150 nonsense titles covering six pages of text. A variety of languages abound, more than any reader could be expected to know, including German, Italian, Basque, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; the various tongues range from a scholar’s French (which is translated “For libentissimily, as soon as there illusces any minutule slither of day” and so on) to three invented languages (“Al barildim gotfano dech min brin alabo dordin falbroth ringuam albaras”). Panurge applies about 180 unsavory adjectives to Friar John (“stumpy,” “lumpy,” “dumpy,” and so on—who says Frenchmen can’t rap?) and the churchman returns the favor two chapters later with a list of equal length. Soon, Pantagruel and Panurge are ganging up on a fool named Triboulet, whose list of insulting nicknames takes up three double-columned pages.
Everything that can be exaggerated, is: when the great Parisian lady turns down Panurge’s invitation to entertain Master John Thursday, the rascal puts a bitch’s scent on her robes, and as she walks through town, she is surrounded by, not “dogs” or “a pack of dogs” but “six hundred thousand and fourteen dogs.” Everything that can be made sillier, is—often in a faux scholarly manner: another lady of Paris sends Pantagruel a ring in an envelope, which he subjects to a dozen procedures, including those of Messere Francesco di Nianto the Tuscan, Zoroaster, and Calphurnius Bassus, yet the secret message that he searches for in vain turns out to be written on the surface if the ring itself.
The diet of reason works, and by Wednesday I’m ready to overindulge again. And it’s a good thing, too, because this is the night Claude and his wife Marie are coming up to Paris from their house in southwest France to have dinner with us. The best way to explain Claude Mercier is by actual example, so I’ll use one from my experience of riding around with him. If, say, you’re taking a photo of a car, and you need someone to lie down in front of it and appear to be dead—even, in fact, if you haven’t realized that need yet—there’s no reason to look further. Claude Mercier’s your man. That day, he did a better corpse than most corpses do, and passersby didn’t appear to know whether to laugh or call the French equivalent of 911.
Marie, in the best wifely tradition, acts as both sea anchor to Claude’s high spirits yet, when necessary, wind to his sails. The four of us end up at L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, a stately old restaurant near Les Halles that specializes in the earthy cuisine of its region, including, of course, chitterlings, which, in honor of my present state of mind, I order. I’ve ordered chitterlings before in France, and not always successfully: The last time I did, the waiter said, You’re American, aren’t you? Yes, I am, I reply. Well, 90 percent of Americans who order chitterlings end up leaving them on the plate. Well, I’m the other 10 percent, I say. Having grown up on a farm in Louisiana, I learned to eat everything, which is to say I was a good Rabelaisian before I’d even heard of Rabelais.
One of the great pleasures of the table is to hear someone like Claude go over the wine list with the sommelier. Whereas in America we make fun of wine descriptions (“overtones of lemon, honey, and cheap aftershave, with a hint of cinnamon and old gym shorts”), the French, for the most part, approach wine more religiously than they do religion. Claude takes maybe ten minutes, with a break in the middle to order appetizers, before settling on the right wine. Here, reader, we have a perfect illustration of the marriage of reason and pleasure, of Montaigne’s worldview joining hands with Rabelais’, as careful consideration and the assistance of wise counsel leads to the right wine for the right foursome at the right meal.
Now for the pleasure part. The early moments of a great meal are like playing in the calm waters before a waterfall: you splash in the gentle current for a while, then, before you know it, you’re heading toward the rapids, and, after that, over the edge. The foie gras and goat cheese salads appeared, then the chitterlings and capons and leg of lamb, then more cheese, then tarts and creams and ices, all washed down with two bottles of Bordeaux followed by snifters of Armagnac and coffee.
On the street outside, Barbara wants to take a picture of Claude and me standing together, just a normal two-shot of a couple of buddies, but Claude decides it would make a much better photo if it were to look like a drug buy, complete with stagy exchange of money and a mysterious packet (actually a plastic pouch of road maps standing in for a half kilo or so of uncut Burmese heroin). I’ve never bought from what’s sometimes referred to as an outdoor pharmacist, but while he pays the bills by practicing law, Claude is, as I mentioned earlier, a classically trained actor, and the transaction is so authentic that several strollers look alarmed enough, I worry, to alert the gendarmes, so after a hurried embrace, we skedaddle. It’s a long walk back to the hotel, but you need a long walk after a meal like that. On the way, we pass several condom machines set like ATMs into the walls of buildings, so that lovers who haven’t had too much Bordeaux and Armagnac can deploy Master John Thursday in a safe and enjoyable manner—again, reason marrying pleasure as it never would in puritan America.
Back at the hotel, reason is rearing its head with a vengeance. The pretty young woman at the desk, who has been deferential and even self-effacing for the past four days, scolds me for not having left the key at the desk the day before. Now, when I’m wrong and know it it’s my policy to grovel; it saves time, and your accuser will like it. But as I hadn’t gone out the day before and had kept the key with me in the room, I suggest that perhaps she is mistaken, that perhaps she had confused me, a guest in room 53, with the monsieur staying in room 35. Mademoiselle isn’t having any of this: I’d gone out, I’d taken the key with me, confusion and alarm ran through virtually everyone on duty that day, I really needed to be more mindful in the future, and so on. I tried to back away, but she continued to huff until another guest arrived and distracted her.
In the end it was nothing, but try to imagine a desk clerk at a Comfort Inn in Vicksburg or a Courtyard by Marriott in Sacramento lecturing someone in this manner. Mademoiselle was a true Daughter of Reason: there is a way of doing things, and you failed to do them properly, so you better watch it, buster. The most carefree people in the world, the French can turn on a dime and also be the most systematic.
Not that this is a contradiction; rather, I see it as a healthy embrace of extremes (though in the future, I’d rather not be chewed out for things I didn’t do). Culturally, it’s a little like the celebrated English bluntness that is the opposite of the celebrated English mannerliness; by practicing the one, you license yourself to practice the other and create a more vibrant culture as well. In the States, we’re more middle of the road. Take, for example, our two centrist political parties, one a little right of center and one slightly to the left, as opposed to France’s plethora of seven or so parties covering a spectrum from Socialists to Greens to the National Front.
Just as American politics are centrist, so, to some extent, are our cultural choices. In the summer of 2004, just as the presidential campaign was heating up, and it was illuminating to see how cultural choices affect politics. In her New York Times column, Maureen Dowd reported that when she asked George Bush what his favorite cultural experience was, he answered, “Baseball”; whereas the same question put to John Kerry elicited a long list of favorite books, films, and music. In 2002 Bush famously mocked an American reporter who asked a question in French at a joint news conference with Jacques Chirac; Kerry, in turn, once answered a French reporter in his native tongue and sent his staff into a tizzy as they debated how best to “spin” the incident so as not to make Kerry appear too smart and thus upset that part of the electorate that distrusts intelligence. The late French president Georges Pompidou once edited a poetry anthology—reader, can you imagine without wincing the reelection chances of an American president after it is learned that he is editing a poetry anthology?
“Learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her,” says Montaigne in one of these essays. To American politicians, learning cannot be the wife, but only because the same is true for part of the electorate; to these people, learning is that girl we dated in high school at the same time we were studying trig or playing volleyball, even though we do neither now.
One morning during our stay, I go down for breakfast at the hotel and pick up a copy of the London Financial Times, where I see this headline: chirac sends philosopher to haiti. The piece begins: “France will today revive its tradition of sending philosophers to war zones with the arrival in Haiti of Régis Debray, a leftwing intellectual charged by Jacques Chirac, the French president, with conducting a ‘mission of reflection’ in the crisis-hit Caribbean island.” Reader, can you imagine our president sending a philosopher anywhere?
* * * *
With Rabelais and Montaigne as my guides, I was learning how willing the French are to embrace opposites: they like to think big, like Rabelais, yet they’re as keen to split hairs as is Montaigne. One can do both at the same time, of course: one afternoon we stop at a little shop on the rue St. Paul so Barbara can look at ex-votos, the little metal body parts that the faithful attach to shrines to effect a cure; and when she can’t make up her mind between two different ones, the shopkeeper says that it is all very well for a woman to choose between two art objects, but did I or did I not think it a good idea for a man to have two wives? No, I reply, only one, but a good one. Ah! he says, so each husband should be a specialist, like a scientist with a narrow field that he knows deeply, as opposed to a generalist who flits from one subject to the other? As Barbara dithers, our conversation goes on in this characteristically French way.
Naturally, as overachievers, both of my authors are more than capable of taking things too far. There’s no one funnier than Rabelais when he’s on a tear, but there’s a little too much shit-eating in his prose for my taste. And Montaigne puts me off when he applies his reason to women and uses it to find them inferior. As in books, so in life, too, can pleasure and reason be taken to extremes. The French are smoking themselves to death, as far as I can see. Yet the abuse of reason is far worse, for it can lead not to individual tragedy but to cruelty on a heartbreaking scale. On our train trip from the airport to the city, one of our stops was Drancy, the camp from which more than 70,000 French Jews departed, on their way to Auschwitz. That morning, fighting the desire to stay in the hotel and sleep, we stopped in at the Patrimoine Photographique museum in the nearby Hôtel de Sully to look at an exhibit of photos taken during the Algerian War; the one that stays with me is of two grinning harkis (Algerians who fought on the French side) holding a naked girl by the wrists after raping her, just before they shoot her.
Wars of every kind are called “barbaric” by political leaders, yet suffering is caused by an excess of reason more often than not. On the morning of March 11, terrorists explode ten bombs in four packed train cars in Madrid, killing and wounding hundreds. One of Montaigne’s most celebrated essays is “On cruelty,” especially torture, a practice he loathed yet one that was not widely considered deplorable in his day. Today there may be fewer incidents of state-sanctioned torture, but individual cruelty seems boundless.
Ironically, the day after the Madrid bombings, I see Marco Bellocchio’s Buongiorno, notte, a film about the kidnapping and execution of former Italian premier Aldo Moro. It’s also a study in how reason can distort thinking: some of the kidnappers want to release Moro on humane grounds, while others argue that proletariat justice means killing your mother if she’s an enemy of the people. One of the reasons I love Paris so much is that it is absolutely the best city for moviegoing; it’s so much better than New York, the best city for movie lovers in the States, that the comparison isn’t worth making. Whenever I am in Paris, however briefly, I always make sure to see at least a couple of films that I know I won’t see in America.
Other than illustrating the danger of excessive reason, though, the Bellocchio movie isn’t that successful. European moviemakers often defend their work as human portraits or character studies as opposed to the more action-driven US films, so here we don’t see Moro’s kidnapping or execution or the capture of the kidnappers; instead, the majority of the film consists of conversations among the four Red Brigade members and their victim inside the apartment where he was held for fifty-five days. The problem with detailing human nature is that it tends to be unchanging; we know that some kidnappers will soften after a while, just as, once Moro accepts his death sentence stoically, we know it won’t be long before he begins to plead for his life. A well-turned plot, however, is never predictable.
That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t see as many movies from as many countries as possible. Cinema in Paris represents the perfect marriage of reason and pleasure; every day, thousands of producers, directors, actors, technicians of all kinds, manufacturers, distributors, schedulers, theater owners, ticket sellers, ushers, and, in recent years, even popcorn makers are working around the clock to make sure that you can, starting as early as 9:00 a.m., see movies from Norway, Mali, Afghanistan, Korea, South Africa, even France and the US.
Paris is many things to me, including a dark room with a screen at one end. I recall one evening during an earlier visit—it wasn’t even dinnertime—that I was tipsy from too many movies, not too much merlot. I’d seen four films that Sunday, and as I made my way toward our apartment, the characters I’d watched all day made the trip with me: gigolos and jewel thieves jostled each other on the sidewalk, and Italian peasants rubbed shoulders on the Métro with mad Bavarian kings. Like others, I go to Paris for food and museums and the beauty of the city, but one of my several Parises is about thirty yards long and ten yards wide and it has a big white screen at the far end—okay, a little white screen, because the average movie auditorium in that city is about the size of the family room in your typical American ranch house.
Yet Parisians get the most out of those little screens: the tiny Accattone movie house on the rue Cujas has only two screening rooms, but in a typical week as many as twenty-nine films are shown there. And when the weekly entertainment guide Pariscope appears every Wednesday, its cover always boasts of the city’s “300 films de la semaine.”
Some movies never seem to leave, and the ones that have some kind of permanent status in Paris movie houses often seem odd choices. When I lived in Paris in 1998, I saw Moonfleet, a pirate movie with Stewart Granger and Vivica Lindfors, as well as Party Girl, a story about the Chicago mob starring Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse. When I came back three years later, the same two movies were still being shown, despite the actors’ middling reputations. Why? Easy: the first film is directed by Fritz Lang and the second by Nicholas Ray. In film terms, Paris is a director’s city.
The permanence of some films suggests something else about Paris, which is that new audiences are always showing up; whereas a city with a more stable population brings films to viewers, die-hard film buffs are constantly heading to Paris to see movies because they know they won’t be able to find more in any other city in the world.
I am one of those die-hards. Besides having been an avid fan from childhood forward, I refer to film a lot in my writing. During one Paris stay, I needed to see Straw Dogs for a piece I was doing. Thirty years after its making, it’s not a movie one would expect to find easily, but I grabbed my Pariscope anyway, and, sure enough, Sam Peckinpah’s bloody revenge tragedy was showing that afternoon at the Action Écoles, just a short bus ride away.
In fact, one of the best features of Paris moviegoing is the elegant treatment given to classic American films. Theaters like the Action Christine often have extended mini-festivals of one kind or another; during this stay, it hosted a film noir festival featuring This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia. It would be hard enough to find one of these movies on an American screen, much less all three.
When it comes to films in languages besides English, France is way ahead of other countries in making content accessible. Most foreign films shown here are original versions that have been subtitled, whereas in Italy and Spain, films are invariably dubbed. Film is primarily a visual medium, so even if you know only a little French, you can follow a French film with a bit of effort, and movies from other countries are quite easy to understand with the help of French subtitles. In Paris I’ve seen Senegalese movies as well as ones in Danish, Greek, and the major Asian tongues. It was as though the Tower of Babel contained a multiplex on the first floor, and while I’m sure I missed a few subtleties, I had no problem figuring out what was going on.
Another key difference between Paris and other cities is that, in the French capital, movies start showing early in the morning and continue until the last metro stops. The day I set my personal record of four movies, I began with three shorter films: Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, then Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La Ricotta and Roman Polanski’s River of Diamonds. I ended with Luchino Visconti’s recently restored Ludwig, nearly four hours in length.
To soak up this much cinematic pleasure, I had to spend a good part of the previous day deploying my powers of reason in service of a strategy that would have made Napoléon proud. Between the first three films and the last, I even found time to eat a confit de canard at a sidewalk café. I drank only mineral water with the meal, though. If you love movies, they’re intoxication enough. And in Paris, there are more than enough movies to make your head spin.
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In my excess of moviegoing, I’d like to think I honored the one quality that Rabelais and Montaigne have in common: excess. Pantagruel’s companion Friar John says, “If I don’t perform some heroic deed every day, I can’t sleep at night.” Montaigne writes: “No powerful mind stops within itself: it is always stretching out and exceeding its capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve: it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows.” These two Frenchmen, dead 300 years and more, make me a better American today.
Shortly after we returned to Tallahassee, and reluctant to let go of our recent experience, I invited some French and Francophile friends over and prepared a dégustation menu for them. In the dégustation tradition, there were many courses, each accompanied by its own wine. And I emphasize regional cuisine in my choice of dishes: often, you hear people say, “Come on over, we’re cooking Italian” or “Should we have Chinese or Thai tonight?” but no French cook would offer to prepare you an American meal, and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake by cooking up a mess of chitterlings in the Auvernois manner.
So here’s what we ate and drank that night: roasted Georgia pecans and champagne; fried Apalachicola oysters and cheese grits with a sauvignon blanc; grilled country sausages and black-eyed peas accompanied by a cabernet; wilted spinach salad with bacon and cane-syrup vinaigrette; bread pudding with bourbon sauce and a sauterne; candied orange and grapefruit rinds with coffee. It might have been a bit much for Montaigne, though I’d like to think Rabelais would have lined up for seconds.
As our two masters teach us, the joys of the belly are most abundant when they are met and matched by the joys of the brain. Each of our guests that night is a world-class conversationalist, as good eaters and drinkers tend to be; those who cleave to plain fare are not avoiding calories so much as hedonism itself, including the enjoyment of witty talk.
The playwright Terence urged moderation in all things, but there are two ways to achieve that balance, each with its own risks and rewards. One is to sit quietly at the center of experience; you’re unlikely to injure yourself, even though your life may not be the most exciting. The other is to recognize the extremes and travel the road between them; you may stub your toe, but there’ll be a thrill around every bend.
Once, when we were visiting Claude and Marie at their home near France’s southern coast, we drove out to Montaigne’s farm, the place where his mind worked best, away from the hugger-mugger of the city; this is where he composed his essay “On idleness.” Even on the farm he practiced isolation: there is a tower where he worked in solitude, and, as with a number of cultural sites in the provinces, one can walk right in with a dismaying lack of supervision. In his asceticism and fierce insistence on morality, Montaigne would seem the less likely of our two masters to counsel anything other than strict virtue. But he knew about the extremes of human nature and recognized their value to the fully evolved person: there is a faded painting on the wall of one room of the tower that shows Saint Michael crushing the serpent, and beneath it, Montaigne wrote, “If necessary I would happily carry a candle to St Michael, and another to his snake.”