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‘Hhmmm, if I sit here long enough stroking my chin and staring at this book cover, then someone might photograph me and people will forget I made ‘Your Highness’ and remember how arty I am.’
The first time I realised that modern day renaissance man James Franco was more than just the guy who played Peter Parker’s bfbnfbhkhf* in Spiderman was a couple of years ago in Paris. I was in one of the Latin Quarter’s tourist trap restaurants with a friend when the camp, middle-aged frenchman dining alone on the table next to us asked what films we’d seen recently. The conversation went something like this:
My friend: Um, I saw Pineapple Express.
Strange Man: Oh, who plays in this Pineapple Express?
My friend: An actor called James Franco is in it.
Strange Man: Oh! James Franco! Yes I know James Franco. What other films have you seen?
Me: Well, I did watch Harry Potter the other day.
Strange Man: Is James Franco in this one?
Me: Uh, no. He isn’t.
Strange Man: Ah, I see. Have you seen any other films with James Franco in?
Me: Um, Spiderman.
Strange Man: And did you like James Franco in this one?
Me: Yeah, I s’pose.
Strange Man: So what other films have you seen with James Franco in?
And so on and so on it went. I detected that the man had a soft spot for James Franco. Since then the Franc’s numerous artistic and academic ventures (books, artshows, albums, creative writing masters to name a few) have seen his value rise dramatically. I feel absolutely certain in my statistical estimations when I say that in the last year 50% of all cultural magazine and sunday supplement article headlines have been a variation on the sentence ‘James Franco does a lot of different things’. Ever ready to go to extreme lengths to get the latest lowbrow culture lowdown, I concocted an elaborate plan to break into his house undetected and see if I could get a heads up on any of his future projects. The plan is too elaborate to go into here so I won’t bore you with the details, instead I shall just provide my findings.
*bfbnfbhkhf = best friend but not forever because he kills his father
Short, dialogue-free film by Simon Hutchins (yes, this is blatant nepotism but it really is rather good) that subverts the ‘Apocalypse’ genre. It’s in two parts so you can watch part 1 above or click here to be redirected to vimeo for it, and here for part 2.
Between the long absences and disparate article publications you may have asked yourself, where have Les Flâneurs gone? Here is a list of several hypothetical, metaphorical, metaphysical theories to answer your question.
We may have been:
. Performing the act of spinning thread into gold
. Bathing under waterfalls and surfing in South America
. Searching for new ways to keep reality in check
. Studying the notion of compensatory decorative exhilaration
. Waiting on a pair of Panasonic – RP-HTX7E that still have not arrived through the post.
Other possible factors:
. L’Officiel photo shoots
. London, Milan, and Paris Fashion weeks (and coordination of required attire)
. The release of Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs
. Existential crisis #1032
. Chance encounters
. Bad weather
. Samosas at La Chapelle
. The combination of whisky and wine
. Installation conceptualization with Halfslant for CHIC ART FAIR
In the heart of Cornwall the Kneehigh theatre company is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this summer with the launch of its nomadic theatre space, ‘The Asylum’. The Red Shoes, Blast, and The King of Prussia will be showing there during the month of August before the company goes on tour.
There are all manner of people pandering for money on the trains of Paris. They work the rails as desperate and street bound as pigeons who hustle the parks for food. If you live in a place long enough, you know the recurring characters.
In Brooklyn, each train carries a different repertoire of many varieties. There’s the kid saving up for a basketball jersey, the candy man just trying to stay out of trouble, the break dancing brothers, the Mariachi singers, the man with the Asian harp, the unwanted sermon from the Jesus freak, the hunchback crack-head bent over a shopping cart singing Otis Retting, the slurring homeless man willing to settle for a sandwich, or the toothless junkie with the same unbelievable sad story month after month “ I’m pregnant, I lost my job, my house burned down, I was robbed, I’m hungry.”
Some people are for real, some aren’t. Some are fine musicians; some just have microphones and amps on wheels, and mumble through bad Karaoke. Whatever the case, if they’re not trust fund kids posing as hippie road people with starving dogs, or aspiring musicians doing it for the experience and the thrill, they are more often than not, people in trouble who have no other choice.
The reasoning of why we decide to give money to one person and not another often seems random, having less to do with how talented or destitute the person is, but more with the inner psychology of the particular moment we’re in as we sit there.
Most of us can’t afford to give to everyone, but once in a while, no matter how down on our luck, we can certainly give to someone. Only time will tell if one day we might not be beggars ourselves. Should we feel guilty then when we don’t give? Should we be outraged when someone is obviously just hustling? If we are listening at all, these are thoughts that may occur each time the paper cup or tattered hat is passed.
Until the one armed man playing the flute walks by, holding his money pouch with the same hand, and having to stop playing every time somebody gives him a coin—BECAUSE HE ONLY HAS ONE HAND— and then you think, “okay I’m broke, but Jesus, I’m going to Hell if I don’t give this poor guy something.”
Like the beauty and colors of the buildings, Paris breeds a striking but less than boundless variety. The musicians in the Metros here are almost exclusively accordion players, joined by the occasional saxophone, hammer harp, or brass horn, all playing the same few songs. In the square below my apartment, an accordion player does the same continuous rendition of “Strangers in the Night.” “They’re not strangers anymore!” my roommate and I desperately joke, as he strikes up the tune again—the same man playing the same song all day, every day and every night.
In the connecting tunnels between trains, it is most often a familiar repertoire of French classics that echo through the passageways and stairwells, but there is also a bizarre homage to American music, an America from the 80’s that is, or years further ago still. Rushing with the stream to the next platform, some man can undoubtedly be heard playing a song like, “Lady in Red,” “Autumn Leaves,” Sinatra’s “My Way,” or George Michael’s “I don’t Ever Wanna Dance Again.”
In the way that Venice does its best to keep every shop front overflowing with pasta, every bridge peopled with busty opera singers and gondoliers in striped shirts, street musicians in Paris uphold the same dream of being here. They provide the seemingly spontaneous soundtrack of what tourists have come here for.
People go to New York for all the noise and excitement and perhaps the possibility of becoming someone; they go to Paris to be entrenched in beauty and taste the romantic life. The façade of the fantasy is real, but like anywhere else, the strings behind it are much more illusive. The hills of Monmartre are indeed resounding with violins, accordions, and harmonicas, all cranking out familiar tunes of Edith Piaf and songs from Amelie.
So the question is, do we owe them something for completing the dream? Do we pay them only when they’re good musicians or play music that we like? Do we do it for compassion, or for the sake of the romantic life? Is it shame or nobility that belongs to the maddening hustle of being toothless, smiling, and broke, knowing that one in a crowd might give you a centime, as you caricaturize yourself or give a true performance, playing the same songs day in and day out. As kitschy or played out as it may be, the music does often augment the moments as we wander through town.
There are a million reasons why people play and beg in the streets or on the train, there are a million reasons we may or may not give them money. But occasionally there is someone who does it for their own sake, to sing a song, no matter who is listening…. whether they are given something for it or not…
The African man began singing on the last train. He sat ceremoniously, in a long colored dress and bare sandaled feet, a man out of time with the winter of the old world. Clusters of black coats and pale skin huddled around him, a person dislocated from a place we must imagine, calling out with the shrill windpipes of secret creatures lost inside, like a tropical bird suddenly released from the forest.
He balanced himself on the edge of the bench and turned towards the others in the back, feet spread apart and hands in motion, playing a drum that wasn’t there, smiling with the creases of words in another language.
His hat was just a small unbrimmed shape attached to his head like a bottle cap, his long tunic and loose pants patterned with colors that could light the way through the dark. On this late night train full of grey fading people, the African man was a vibrant sight, one we see copies of in our travels through town.
The singer’s companion was dressed in the same exotic uniform, but carried an alligator briefcase and wore snakeskin boots and a leather jacket. Clearly this was the man’s protector, sheathing himself in the language of the West. The Africans of Paris come in pure form, having strayed only so far from the lands of their origins. They speak a collage of red velvet patois, skin impenetrable black, eyes deep and yellow at the edges.
As he continued to sing, the other passengers looked on or turned away. The woman across from him buried herself in a newspaper, the drole look of French disdain stamped on her face for eternity. The man in the trench coat coughed and straightened his collar.
It was only the young couple by the door who chimed in with his singing, drunk and in love—the sorts that continue dancing long after everyone else has left, ridiculously so, to music only they can hear. They clapped and stomped their feet with him. They fell upon each other trying to keep up. And when the song was over they gave the man a few coins.
It was then that it occurred to the quiet stranger sitting in the corner, that perhaps the man hadn’t suddenly burst into spontaneous song. He wasn’t singing because the night was over, or to pass the time. It wasn’t because he was happy, or hungry, or alone.
Or perhaps the white lovers had only misunderstood. Theirs’ was a world where it wasn’t enough to be strangers that suddenly turn friendly for a train ride…to bridge a long gap between two very different kinds. The coins broke that alliance, but left everyone happy.
The train shuttled on into the night, picking up passengers from every direction. Some stood in the shadows leaning against poles, others sat in the light, dazed by the sudden glimpse of their own reflections in the dark windows.
As the doors opened and closed to empty platforms, and late-night riders nodded off with fatigue, the last train car lit up with music, bright and incomprehensible, the final throbbing part of a blind glowworm’s tail.
Les Flâneurs met up with the founders of the Chez Jack art collective based on a chimerical, unconventional world that is Jack’s. Chez Jack’s compelling installations and photography will be exhibited this month at the Centre Culturel Auguste Dobel.
Vernissage and Happening this Friday, June 4th make for an awesome event.
Les Flâneurs: First of all, who is Jack?
Anthony: To be honest, I don’t really know. I just know that he doesn’t have the life of an ice-skater and that he doesn’t work at Météo France…
Jonathan: Jack is no one in particular. It startedoff as the name of a place we used to live in 3 years ago. Instead of saying “tonight there’s a party at Anthony’s, Jonathan’s, and Phillipe’s Place,” we would just say “Party Chez Jack tonight”. Then we moved to another apartment with different people but we still called the new place “Chez Jack”. Chez Jack wasn’t associated with just one place anymore, or identified by specific people. Chez Jack became an “état d’esprit…” / a state of mind.
LF: When Chez Jack speaks of having certain “sensibilités’”? What does that mean? What is Chez Jack sensitive towards?
Anthony: You could say that Chez Jack is sensitive towards a lot of things: the absurd, the mysterious, estafettes*, romance, Alain Turban…What counts is that this sensitivity ties us together. It’s like a language that we have in common that allows us to share, create, and move forward.
Jonathan: We each have our own mindsets, but we have the common desire to live together in a poetic world – in a world that’s a bit more mysterious, more incoherent, more colorful. Chez Jack tends to transform the commonplace into a work of art.
LF: Who can take part of Chez Jack?
Jonathan: Anyone. Chez Jack is based on chance encounters. The key is to have an open mind.
Anthony: We know that specific characteristics make certain people get along and others not. These characteristics are probably subconscious or in any case difficult to pinpoint. We don’t deny their existence but we don’t really want to think much on them either. When really asking ourselves this question, we use a system we’ve developed, which involvesmeasuring one’s skull and height. According to our calculations, Benjamin, our black toy baby is much more capable of being part of Chez Jack than a Batman figurine…
LF: On your site it says that Chez Jack’s network is made of permanent ties. What are the factors that make these ties?
Jonathan: We mean that, even if you just stayed in our apartment for 3 days, and we had a good time together, you’re a part of Chez Jack…even if you live 8000 km away. People traveling from all over the world have taken part in Chez Jack. We don’t hear from them so often anymore for the most part.
Anthony: Certain people seem to live in a permanent Chez Jack, when others return, leave, pass through, fly over, disembark…
Aude: Who says that?
LF: Chez Jack has a certain 60s / new wave / nostalgic / retro feel. Where do you think that comes from?
Jonathan: I think it’s justa general trend. It’s in ‘l’air du temps’. We didn’t particularly think of this aspect, but the retro feel has been everywhere for a while now. Like a lot of people, outdated things fascinate us. Eventually, we all end up being overtaken; maybe this fascination is a way to anticipate [what's coming next], to reassure ourselves.
Anthony: It might come from the fact that we’re constantly looking for ways of living that aren’t merely imposed upon us and that correspond to us [as individuals]. So we go back and look for images from past eras that appeal to us and have been on our minds – eras in which people lived differently.
LF: Hats seem to be an important type of Chez Jack object. What do they mean? Are they signs of some kind of ranking or positioning between Chez Jack members?
Jonathan: Hats are a way to change your mood. If you’re feeling blasé and angry, just put on your “I love jesus” cap and you’ll look way better.
Anthony: At Chez Jack, wearing a hat can be a way to let go of everyday life. It’s like a mask or a costume, an object that helps each person decide who he or she really wants to be at that precise moment.
Aude: The fear that our ideas will escape.
LF: What is the difference between a regular object and a Chez Jack object?
Jonathan: Chez Jack objects are just everyday life objects that have a special meaning to us because of the different experiences we’ve had with them. We share a collective memory around these objects, because at one point or another, these objects werepart of a story linked to our imagination – a place we go from time to time.
Anthony: They’re loaded with shared recollections, which make them of inestimable worth. They speak to us, remind us of things, and inspire us…
Come discover the universe of Chez Jack, at its moment of exposure.
Special opening and installation Friday June 4th, 2010, from 6-10pm.
Chez Jack at Centre Culturel Auguste Dobel
9 rue Philidor
… the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’
- Susan Sontag
An adventurer must be willing to travel through realms without maps, exposing themselves to danger and chance, in the name of all things extraordinary and unknown.Walking down a dirt road in the mountains of southern Spain, I once encountered a two-headed dog. Traveling the Mediterranean this fall, I only relied on church bells for the time. In Brooklyn, the best bars to go to are often the ones with no names. I’m no veteran here, but as a walker and a stranger and a rider of trains, I know that to discover a place, it behooves us to become flâneurs, to shed all direction and purpose, and just get lost.
A “flâneur” is something that doesn’t exist in English. The word itself stems from the French verb “flâner,” which literally means, “to stroll.” But beyond the word there is a concept, a derived meaning invented in the 1800s by the poet, Charles Baudelaire, who, in response to the growing bourgeois ideal sweeping industrialized Europe, advocated that the artist immerse himself in the metropolis and become a “botanist of the asphalt.”* It is fitting then that there is no certain translation, as a flâneur describes a fleeting thing, a sort of “wanderer,” or, as the poet originally put it, “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.”
True to the spirit of wandering and adventure, flâneurs never fully have their feet on the ground, playing a meaningful part in defining the city but remaining detached observers all at once. In Paris this idea has even transcended into architecture. The mere existence of balconies on almost every building tells us this is a city designed for people who enjoy the view, who take the time to see what is around them, whether on close examination or aimless passing.
Constructions such as Les Passages Couverts, the many covered passage ways found throughout Paris, were built in direct response to the advent of the flâneur as a sort of lost parallel to the tourist, making it possible to leisurely walk the streets in rain or shine. Despite it’s ancient roots and monotonous beauty, Paris is still a city that nods to a world of things to be experienced in passing, a place for dreamers and drifters and wanderers to be sure.
Photograph of a covered passage near the Grands Boulevards,from a Robert Doisneau exhibit at the Monnaie de Paris in January, 2010.
It was in this way that I stumbled upon La Rue des Veilles Rêves (the Street of Old Dreams), in Grasse, a small town on the Cote Azure, where perfume was invented. It was smaller than you’d imagine a street with such a name to be—just a brief ally way left untended, a few crumbling steps that lead nowhere, a broken window exposing the darkness inside a house. A group of neighborhood thugs stood loitering at the end of it, bumping music from a boom-box on a pile of shattered glass, staring at me as I passed, like wolves over meat. The rest of Grasse is unmercifully perfect, a postcard town full of flower boxes, and open doors wafting heavenly scents. This one stretch of land exists in shadow, rundown and derelict…a place befitting of old dreams.
There are over 6000 streets in the city of Paris. Some are only narrow alleyways, dark and cobbled, and lost in obscurity, others sweep the city in classical glory, as tree-lined avenues gilded in gold. The beauty of Paris draws from many sources, often most marked by the details in the landscape: the woman hanging laundry from the open window, the old man carrying a loaf of bread, the statue of the goddess tangled with the fawn, the child running in circles over a windy vent in the square, the fat pigeon cooing on a rooftop, the thread of overheard conversation that leaks from a balcony onto the breeze.
Aside from the countless avenues named after generals, authors, inventors, architects, presidents, artists, and saints, etc., there are a number of more mysterious streets with rather curious names. Here is a list of some notable ones, a collection of walkways both humorous and poetic, some well known, others rarely traveled:
Rue des Innocents (Street of Innocents) Passage des Princes (Passage of Princes) Impasse du Boeuf (the Beef Impasse) Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle (Blvd of Good News) Avenue des Gobelins (Avenue of Goblins) Rue des Mauvais Garçons (Street of Bad Boys) Passage des Singes (Passage of Monkeys) Rue du Chat qui Pêche (Street of the Cat Who Goes Fishing) Rue des Oiseaux (Street of Birds) Rue aux Ours (Street of Bears) Rues des Petits Péres (Street of Little Fathers) Rue de la Lune (Street of the Moon) Rue du Roi-Doré (Street of the Golden King) Rue des Bons Enfants (Street of Good Children) Passage des Orgues (Passage of Organs) Rue de la Lingerie (Street of Lingerie) Rue de Cherche Midi (Street that Searches for Noon) Terrasse de Champagne (Champagne Terrace) Rue Mademoiselle (Street of the Mademoiselle) Rue des Filles du Calvaires (Street of the Calvary Girls) Rue des Boulets (Street of Meatheads/ Douchebags) Rue des Blancs Manteaux (Street of White Coats) Rue du Moulin-des-Lapin (Street of the Rabbit’s Windmill) Rue des Belles Feuilles (Street of Beautiful Leaves) Rue des Martyrs (Street of Martyrs) Rue des Roses (Street of Roses) Passage des Eaux-Vives (Passage of Living Waters) Rue des Entrepreneurs (Street of Entrepreneurs) Cité des Fleurs (City of Flowers) Rue des Solitaires (Street of Solitaires) Passage du Souvenir (Passage of a Memory) Rue du Papillion (Street of the Butterfly) Rue de la Tour-des-Dames (Street of the Spinning Dames) Passage de la Main d’Or (Passage of the Golden Hand)
All of this describes a fantastical place, full of fairy tale imagery and Medieval myth, surrealist concepts and spiritual connotations, woodland creatures and risqué women, savory foodstuff and poetic homage…a metropolis well endowed with imagination.
In the end, Paris is a city of antiquity and history. But despite its old age and relative stubbornness, its beauty is remarkably maintained. Many of these streets have been renamed over time. But others remain as they were, continuing to exist with or without connection to their namesakes.
The Passage d’Enfer is a street that literally means the “Passage through Hell.” I won’t say exactly where it is, because my speaking of it too precisely almost ruins its existence. Like many of these streets, it’s a place to be chanced upon. And like the Street of Old Dreams, the Passage Through Hell is not what one would immediately expect. There are no seedy characters peering from the windows, no demons or flames or shadows. The passage through hell is an empty corridor, no doors, no sound, no people. It is eerily quiet and empty of life.
View from the entrance of the Passage d’Enfer.
The whole quartier was once called the Bois d’Enfer, named so for its notoriety as one of the worst neighborhoods in Paris. While the cemetery of Montparnasse and the entrance to the catacombs are not far off, still lending a sense of morbidity to the district, the Passage d’Enfer is all that remains of that original “bad name.”
La Rue du Chat qui Pêche (Street of the Cat who goes Fishing), is the narrowest street in Paris. It measures a mere 1,80 meters. Lined with hanging lanterns and reeking with the smell of cat pee, the end of it is reached in a matter of strides. Only in Paris is a place so inconsequential and unsavory still given such a name.
La Rue du Chat Qui Pêche, as photographed by Robert Doisneau circa 1950.
The story behind it is debated, but dates back to a legend from the 15th century, of a black cat that was often seen disappearing down the alley way with a fish in it’s mouth, having just emerged from the near by bank of the Seine. As the street isn’t far from a notable church, a group of ecclesiastical students eventually came to believe the cat was the devil, and one day strangled and drowned it in the river…And that was the end of the cat who goes fishing.
Rue des Blancs Manteaux (Street of White Coats), is now a harmless little thoroughfare in the Marais, housing a library, a school, and a slough of chic shops. Named in the late 13th century for the order of the Servants of Mary from the nearby convent, the street was once bustling with monks in long white robes scurrying in and out the doors of the church, walking ceremoniously with books in their hands.
Map of the district during the 18th century, showing the convent of Les Blancs Manteaux on the right.
There was also a famous song called Dans La Rue Des Blancs Manteaux, written by Jean Paul Sartre in the 1940s, and sung by Juliet Greco, which spoke of the executions that took place there during the French Revolution.
A few blocks from Blancs Manteaux is the infamous Rue des Mauvais Garçons (Street of Bad Boys). Ironically, it is in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Paris and is no more than a block long…if you blink, you’ll miss it.
The small restaurant at the end of Rue des Mauvais Garçons
Today the street boasts little more than a restaurant and a small hotel, which in the Dark Ages served as a haven for squirely thugs, as Sir Peter de Caen and his henchmen used it as a hideout before carrying out famous assassinations.
A painting of Rue Des Mauvais Garçons by Charles Meryon circa 1854, The Frick Collection
Strangers in Paris have trouble finding the bad neighborhoods because all the buildings are so beautiful. The danger lies in the beauty, and is driven by more than lights and emptiness, hooded figures or derelict façades.
Having lived in rougher parts of rougher towns, I can say with experience that there certainly are streets worthy of being wary of, but I’d venture a greater argument to the effect that a neighborhood is only really “bad” or “dangerous” if you don’t know it…and more importantly don’t know how to walk it. The best defense is to learn the way, to be willing to enter the landscape despite known risks… only keep your head about you.
In New York, you know immediately whose lands you are walking through. It’s a city with such defined identities, you understand its image, though perhaps not its true essence, the moment you step off the boat, whether arriving from Tupelo or Siberia. The borders are unspoken but clearly present…when you cross one you will know it. From block to block things change immensely.
Paris, while breathtaking, is more monochromatic. The buildings get fancier, larger, more elaborate, but they all evolve from the same foundation…a template for the picturesque. The population changes, but it happens more gradually.
Every city has a different pace. The pace of walking often echoes the speed of business, growth, movement, change.
In New York everyone walks quickly, even when there is nowhere to go. As a newcomer it seems outrageous at first to be swept along in a sea of black coats and skirt suits on your way to who knows where, but, as they say in Russian fairy tales, “in a long time or a short time,” you find yourself irrationally aggravated by the old lady hobbling in front of you. In many ways, this is the moment of becoming a “New Yorker.”
The narrow sidewalks of many Paris streets dictate a slower pace. It is a city of promenades and leisurely strolls, of sitting down to a meal for a whole afternoon or whiling away the hours at some cafe.
But considering the fact that Paris is pretty empty of any grand sense of urgency or panic, it does manage to be a fairly productive place. The destination is still reached, but the way is not always direct…these are ponies that saunter, not horses that gallop. The moment of becoming a “Parisian” is much more leisurely, perhaps arrived at with a flamboyant hand gesture, a debonair shrug, or a taste for turning water into wine.
Cities come in different shapes. Sometimes their forms are recognizable, resembling strange creatures or abstract symbols. New York is a grid. Paris is a spiral. It is a collection of monuments, by which any young girl can find her way after dark.
In our wanderings through town, we may have learned that all of the city’s gold is kept beneath the Palais Royal, or that there are 6 million skeletons buried under Monparnasse from the overflowing cemeteries. But what is it exactly that lies at the center of the maze…
In the spirit of aimlessness and adventure, I encourage us all to be flâneurs.
* Walter BENJAMIN “Die Gemächlichkeit dieser Schildereien passt zu dem Habitus des Flaneurs, der auf dem Asphalt botanisieren geht », “Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire” (On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939)