“The unexpected encounter is a crucial theme within surrealism…”
Man, that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use, objects that his nonchalance has brought his way, or that he has earned through his own efforts, almost always through his own efforts, for he has agreed to work, at least he has not refused to try his luck (or what he calls his luck!).
Andre Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto, 1924.
A few years after the end of the Second World War an already weary young romancer, writer and would-be film-maker met a young girl dancer on the ferry from Calais to Dover quite by chance.
It was 1949. Roger Vadim was searching for a star for his first film script, Les Lauriers Sont Coupés: back in Paris he screen-tested two actresses, one them the girl on the boat.
“I had come across Leslie Caron on the Cross Channel ferry and advised Marc Alligret to go see Roland Petit’s ballet La Rencontre, in which she was a strange and a fascinating sphinx, a snowy slyph wafting high above the stage on a thread from her spider’s web. On the screen, she possessed both charm and presence, but her inexperience worried the producer, and she was not signed. Shortly afterward, thanks to the test, she went off to Hollywood, where a fabulous contract was awaiting her.”
The other screen-test was Brigitte Bardot. Vadim married her (one of five wives), and as a Simulacrum God, he “Created (naked) Woman” with “BB” in 1956. Soon afterwards, and over the Atlantic, America “discovered” French Film.
In Hollywood, Leslie Caron returned to Paris, almost, with An American in Paris, the musical with Gene Kelly. Here is how she remembers getting the film part, it is quite different from Vadim’s version: “I was born in Paris to a dancer-mother and was prima dancer of the Ballet Champs d’Elysée when I was 16-years old. I was performing the ballet drama, Oedipus & the Sphinx, when Gene Kelly spotted me on the opening night and chose me for An American in Paris.”
In “Revolution of the Mind”, a Life of Andre Breton by the American, Mark Polizzotti, he explains that Breton: “often evinced a will to improve upon the mundane aspects of life, to recast them into something larger and more resonant – even if, at times, it meant adjusting his curriculum vitae. He claimed that he had no use for the “empty moments” of his life, the instances of “depression or weakness” that would nonetheless visit him so regularly, preferring instead to accentuate the unusual or dramatic episodes, to project them beyond simple biography into something approaching universal truth.”
I think that Breton and his Surrealists, informed by the ideas of psychology, the unconscious, and of The shapeless, memory-haunted City – and this sense of “improving” on the mundane, or an objective truth – pretty much invented one major strand of modern travel. The travel that is random, about cafés and careless, aimless, afternoons walking somewhere; which is about stories (imagined or real, improved or altered) not sights, seen – or missed – and photographed. It is about catching atmospheres, not the waiter’s eye; the alternative to this being the “collector” travel that is about reservations at restaurants, catching the hip show in town, the big art show, the most fashionable club. Both are equally valid, of course. But their evolutionary matter is very different. The latter start with Tom Coryat, morph into the Grand Tourists, and now…perhaps they are on the “Brand Tour”.
Once upon a time the “collector” traveller has perhaps seen An American in Paris, and wants to walk by the Arc du Triomphe, dance near the Seine. Or they have read a guidebook, or a restaurant review in the IHT. Heard about the great new Picasso show at Gallery X. This is not the Surrealist’s way, nor – for a long time – the backpacker’s.
“The Surrealists offered a critique of bourgeois sexual relations, masculinity and femininity, institutional treatment of the ill, social prejudices, religious bigotry, Eurocentrism and colonialist politics. Their anti-paternalism ran deep, and – I only mean this as a positive analogy – was that of the child (male or female) who questions the rules and values of an adult culture whose only reply is that as a parent they “know best”…” writes David Bate.
Ok. But how does a city “know best”? Often through the way its local and national government funds, promotes and advertises museums, galleries, and attractions of course; but more often through the stories told about it from a wide series of sources, not just its own. How, say, America had viewed Paris in the sixty years since the end of WW2: from Gene Kelly’s Paris, built on a Hollywood lot. “Well, for starters, it was never shot in Paris because in those days all films were made in studios. But I think it was the first ‘real’ musical that was made, with its amazing sets, music and choreography. The last scene took three months to choreograph and one month to shoot. The sets alone took three days to create. Everyone thought we were insane to end the film with a 20-minute ballet sequence, but it turned out to be the most talked-about feature of the film,” as Vadim’s “protégé” Leslie Caron explains. Within a decade another kind of Paris described by the cinema of the “Nouvelle Vague.” Quirky, irreverent, obsessed with American pop-culture, cinema itself.
And there are later Parises: in Benieux’s film “Diva” or Polanski’s “Frantic” (Americans in peril in 1980s Paris). The Paris of “Three Colours Red”; “Moulin Rouge” or “The Da Vinci Code”. Bertolucchi’s “Last Tango” or more recently “The Dreamers”.
In the view of Walter Benjamin, the great critic and champion – if not “creator” – of the idea of the café-observing “flaneur”, following his heart, or some other major organ, around the City of Paris, is first formed fully through Breton’s novel “Nadja”, even if its origins go back to the nineteenth century poet, Baudelaire. In this strange novel, with photographs, a narrator describes walking parts of Paris, and an affair with “Nadja” that goes wrong. The aimless quality of the journeys he makes is very similar to what is a now quite mundane tourist idea: wandering Paris in a half-state, remembering, imagining, and experiencing, everything from the Revolution, through Miles Davis’s affair with Juliette Greco and a glimpse of Diana at the Ritz. “What is revolutionary in Nadja’s hallucinations is the recovery of scenes from historical Paris; her life is not subjected to dreary work, rather to the work of dreaming impressions of Paris. “ David Bate writes.
I like this sense of the city-story shifting in our minds as we walk, growing restless and re-writing itself, pulling in history but not being overwhelmed by it: Vadim’s Paris (with Fonda) was not Fonda’s, as we shall see.
But do we hear (and see) the overt history at Notre Dame when we copy the Surrealist drive for chance and the unexpected and just turn left when we feel like it, or do we merely seek to generalize from the “look” as we sit safe with our coffee and “watch” from afar? Do we find a meaning in the galleries of the Louvre, or just see a Dan Brown novel being acted out?
Which is, of course, one very real “meaning” of the Mona Lisa these days. A profitable one; probably as profitable as the visions of France in “And God Created Woman”, “An American in Paris” or “Moulin Rouge”.
And yet all these stories can help to bring us to a place, and pretend for a while that we are living out their fictions. This weekend, an aimless stroll through the Marais, a lunch, some Picasso, somewhere, shops full of 1960s newspapers, modern art and ancient churches. And in the Place des Voges, the Victor Hugo café (full) and nearby his house (almost empty despite the free entry).
Hugo was no surrealist – but I have avoided him too long (ever since Montreuil, in fact) and now here he is, confronting me: this encounter was by chance. I must respond to it.
Why not? Tomorrow: I must write about Hugo.
And I’ll come back to the Surrealists, Flaneurs and Wanderings when I’ve shaken off the atmosphere of the Marais in the Rain.