In my last entry, Paris and its medieval quarter, the Marais, took the stage. In 1977, the point at which I’ve arrived in my autobiography, the Marais was just emerging from a slumber, that whole area above the Hotel de Ville, getting a shot in the arm with the opening of “Beaubourg.” “Le Centre George Pompidou” its formal name, this huge gallery, library and cultural center looked like a huge, brightly colored petroleum refinery that had fallen from the sky. Its exteriorized ducts, beams, glass-encased escalators are color-coded to reflect their function: blue for air, green for fluids, red for communication, and yellow for electricity.
The “Centre’s” Lego-like mein clashes frightfully with the high gothic church, St-Merri, that stands opposite the south end, across the Place Igor Stravinski. Begun in the 9th Century, and remodeled over the years, the church’s interior now is a showcase of the German Baroque, which was all the rage in the 17th Century, around the heydey of today’s composer, Johann Pachelbel. One can imagine the works of this composer, the teacher of Johann Sebastian Bach, performed here by a small ensemble for a royal patron.
Here is how I came to know Pachabel’s most famous piece, “The Canon in D.”
Paris is known as “The City of Lights.” The kleig lights along the Seine that come on at sunset, illuminating the facets of The Louvre, Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf, and the Tour Eiffel, do indeed turn the place into a wondrous shimmering diamond bracelet. When living in Paris, though, visiting places like Beaubourg, the Cinematheque, and the countless other little cinemas around the city, I realized it could also aptly be called, “The City of Movies.”
Hollywood has all but ironed out every wrinkle that might give a film a sense of the unique, experimental, and especially the artistic. Go to your Netflix and try to find a Jean Renoir’s “Grande Illusion.” You’ll quickly discover that for us Yanks, movie are purely escapist “entertainment” that appeal to the visceral and rarely to the intellectual.
But in Paris, people still consider a film a work of art. For that reason, on any given week in Paris, you can see a screening a film from virtually any decade and in any style from most any country.
What’s more you could take your pick of the venue, be it large theatre, a small screening room at the “Cinemathque” located at the Trocadero Palace across the river from the Eiffel Tower, or in one of the countless tiny “cafe cinema” where you could bob out at intermission for an espresso, a vin blanc, or a Dubuffet. Of course by now, Paris probably has the large google-plexes that show all the latest Vin Diesel, Tom Cruise, or Bruce Willis blow-em-up. And I have to admit, in 1977, the larger theatres were playing “Jaws III.” Yet I remember that Herzog’s latest film, “Heart of Glass” a ponderous film critical of the rise of the industrial revolution and the resultant destruction of worker’s intellectual abilities–was heralded and given wide release in the big movies houses as well.
But, at the same time, there were so many little film houses the only way you could keep track of them was to buy the weekly “Pariscope” magazine which listed every film. Being a film buff, I would comb through every issue looking to find some classic film or the latest release by Herzog, Renais, Fassbinder, Bertolucci or Wenders. These were the artists whose work I had come to love at Indiana University, and here in Paris I could watch them to my heart’s content.
Not that I only watched European films. Once I found a small place on the Left Bank that every night for as long as I was in Paris showed “Little Big Man” at seven p.m. And in a tiny little cinema, I watched “Dr. Strangelove.” The only Yank in the crowd, I laughed heartily, the only one understanding the culturally specific humor and the puns embedded in such character names as General Bat Guano. It was heaven.
The semester before I had left for Paris, Herzog’s “Nosferatu” had premiered in the States, and it took my breath away. In Paris, I was able to see a good deal of his earlier works, the most affecting one being “The enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”
The film concerns the story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who’d been kept chained in a barn by his father, (we suspect) who early one morning mysteriously clothes Kaspar and takes him to the center of the nearby town, where he leaves the feral man standing in a public square.
The town people discover Kaspar and he is taken to the smartest man in town, an 18th century scientist of the enlightenment. This man, fueled by Rousseau’s notion that “all men or born free, it is society that puts them in chains, takes the young man under his wing. It turns out that he runs a little asylum for the mentally ill, but he is a pioneer in that he treats his patients with love and kindness. He teaches Kaspar to talk, read, play and appreciate music.
After a while, the results he has gotten makes Kaspar famous and the rich people of the time come to visit and eventually one gives the doctor a large sum of money saying that he will take care of him. He does, but he also trots Kaspar out at his parties, almost as a kind of dancing bear.
One day, the man who abandoned Kaspar returns and kidnaps him. He takes Kaspar to a field where he bashes him over the head and leaves him for dead. The town’s people find him and take him back to the kindly scientist, where he expires. The film’s subtitle ominously enough was “Every man for himself and God against all.”
The film overflows with ideas and is pregnant with symbolism. One of the most affecting parts for me was the role of the father. He deprives the son of every intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual experience and then shoves him out into the world. When the son’s reputation eclipses his father’s, the father murders the son.
But aside from these weighty themes, the film remains a senusal feast for the eyes and ears as well. The opening scene shows the father, shot from behind and overhead, carrying Kaspar over his shoulder through a chest-high field of wheat. A stiff wind blows the wheat into wild pattern, while on the soundtrack, Pachelbel’s Canon in D provides the perfect accompaniment. It reminded me of a similar scene in Japanase film called “The Bailiff Bansho.” I wonder if Herzog was quoting that earlier film.
Some people might consider this piece hackneyed. It constantly appears in commercial and was even sampled in the 1990s by a girl’s pop/hop group. I must confess that I rarely ever reach for it, yet it doesn’t make me sick hearing it again and again. In fact, it’s like an old friend. And I really can’t complain of its use in a commercial. After all, I started listening to classical music because Warner Brothers created an entire Bug’s Bunny cartoon around “The Overture to the Barber of Seville.” Would you rather they used Marilyn Manson to sell cars?