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Outtakes: Notes from Paris

Lovers may love Paris, but Paris loves movies. Three hundred films are shown daily, many of them American, both old and new. The other night, for example, I saw Charade, the elegant, fast-paced 1955 film with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn upon which The Truth About Charley, a haphazard film and a waste of studio money and customer time, is based.
This winter, 94 movie theaters and 29 film festivals were listed for the 20 arrondissements of Paris. Festivals ranged from “America against America” (65 films about or from America), to Bogie’s complete works, of which I saw Passengers in the Night (or Dark Passage here) a 1947 film with Bacall that you could never find in New York. American films of the 1940s and 1950s are routinely shown in theaters all over Paris. Many of the cinemas are multiplex showing 5 to10 films at a time. Each time I have gone, the theaters are full. Nothing approaches this adoring feeding frenzy in America.

One of the current festivals is the Cycle Michael Moore whose Bowling for Columbine opened to rave reviews. It is now showing in 12 theaters in Paris and has been seen by at least 800,000 French customers. In the Cycle (at the Beaubourg), Moore’s two other films— Roger & Me and The Big One— are also showing. I went to see Bowling for Columbine for the second time, looking for the French reaction.

As everyone knows, the French are extremely anti-Bush; 87 percent oppose the Iraq war. Six million Muslims live in France, or 10 percent of its population of 60 million, as compared to only 6 million Muslims in the US, or just 2 percent. But in spite of the fact that the French authorities report stopping numerous threats, including a planned gas attack on the Metro, the French do not support war.

So Michael Moore’s documentary about gun killings in America appeals to a public hot for any statistics on U.S. violence. For instance, Columbine tells us that France had 377 gun killings last year, while America had 11,127 murders, 17,000 suicides, and 400 gun accidents. It shows us the school’s harrowing surveillance tape of the killings that Moore asked for, and surprisingly, got. No one else had asked. Moore’s interviews as well as the historical background he provides on the possible causes of this violence may be slanted and a bit repetitious, but the French ignore or forgive this, ravening down the news clips of America’s imperialism in Vietnam, Chile, and Bosnia.

The gist of the reviews is stated in Premiere; “Moore shows a country sick with arms and blood and we forgive him the manipulations that he uses to demonstrate this.” Or this one from Telerama: “Bush chases all the imaginable Satans in the world. Doesn’t the violence of the state endorse the violence of the individual?”

Le Monde points out that America, a country of 280 million, has 250 million guns, more than American voters or TV sets. “It is a country where happiness is a loaded gun, protected by the Constitution,” as Charlton Heston, President of the National Rifle Association (NRA), reminds us. Moore jokes that since Heston once played Moses, people do what he tells them. Columbine was the first documentary in almost 50 years to be accepted as an Official Selection at the Cannes film competition. It received a 15-minute ovation.

I have asked a number of French people what they thought about the movie. Though a few feel that the clips of American imperialism are biased, and thus weaken the film, and that the two-hour film is too long by 15 to 20 minutes, all roared at the hilarious section in Canada. They see the mordant humor of the film, and not just its violence. Moore discovers that the Canadians do not lock their doors and decides to test this for himself by randomly opening doors. None of the surprised inhabitants seem afraid or even annoyed, as Moore mumbles apologies. The 30 million Canadians, who own 7 million guns, do not seem to use them to knock off each other but, rather, to hunt. The French also like the opening of the film where Moore opens a checking account at a bank in the U.S. West and is given a gun as a reward. They admire the cartoon sequence showing that after the 1835 invention of the Colt, killings rose dramatically, and that the NRA and Ku Klux Klan were founded in the same year, l872.

And the French, who stage demonstrations and strikes with the frequency of a frat beer blast, admire the sequence in which K-Mart is pressured by Moore to withdraw its hand-gun ammunition from its shelves. Le Nouvel Observateur calls Moore the “most ferocious and funniest satirist in apathetic America.” The French are impressed by his determined dogging to find an answer to why Americans shoot each other.

Another American documentary opened in Paris while I was there: Last Party 2000, featuring an overweight, scruffy Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Michael Moore interviewer’s role, also wearing a baseball cap. Donavan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklin made it and one of the interviewees is Michael Moore! It has not been released in America but Paris had it in two theaters, including Cycle Michael Moore at the Beaubourg. It is about the faulty election process of 2000, including the butterfly ballot debacle and the shock of some black Florida voters who were barred from voting. The French enjoyed its sardonic humor and Hoffman’s mimicking of and resemblance to Moore, but reviewers felt it was far overshadowed by Columbine.

The French seem attracted to films that show the US as a nation of violence. Perhaps that is why they have put Gangs of New York in 16 theaters in Paris alone. The French love Scorsese, often showing his films in theaters and on TV. At the “America Against Americans” film festival, his film Casino was showing. I saw Mean Streets on French TV fortunately not dubbed but seemingly timed for the opening days of Gangs.

Gangs of New York shows New York City not as a melting pot, but a raging cauldron stoked by continual bloodbaths between the city’s racial gangs in the 1850s and 1960s. Although the French dismiss the love story and the vengeance themes (some even use the battle cry “The blood is on the blade!” as a joke), they are awed by Scorsese’s epic vision, that had been simmering in his imagination for 25 years. They have always adored his low-life and gangster movies, and Le Monde writes of Gangs, “Scorsese shows an unwelcoming America, not at all open to the rest of the world. This is his best and most important movie.”
The set of downtown Five Points, scene of the many gang wars, was magnificently recreated on the 15-acre Cinecittà stage in Rome, the last time such a huge set will be built there. Ironically, lawless Five Points is where New York’s Federal Courthouse now stands. During the rarely depicted 1863 Draft Riots, the city was burned, emancipated slaves were hung from lampposts, the mansions of the rich were looted, Northern troops fired on civilians, and gun ships thundered cannons at the city. Scorsese shows all this and the French eat it up like frites.

One Frenchwoman went so far as to say that now she preferred the Germans to the Americans. Even more shocking is that she was of Jewish descent, and had hid in the countryside during World War II. France sees America not as heroic and noble, as it used to after World War II, but as an arrogant, aggressive, even brutal nation, relishing guns and thirsting for blood.

Stars (out of a possible 5)

Bowling for Columbine * * *

Gangs of New York * * * *


Galen Williams

GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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