By Grant Rosenberg

Paris would be an entirely different city were it not for its movies. Though there are video stores with vast selections of films around the world and no shortage of American action thrillers, it is the revival houses that make Paris a treat for cinephiles. At any given moment, there are hundreds of films playing all over the city—films from all over the world, including mini-festivals and retrospectives—and most in their original language with subtitles in French.

Five years ago, I saw Deliverance for the first time. Not a pan-and-scan version on TV, but an original print of the film—scratches, crackles, breaks and all. Paris, Texas, Dead Man, Dr. Strangelove and Basquiat—all films I saw after they were far from movie screens in the United States.

The most interesting thing is how little distinction there is between foreign and domestic films, at least in terms of promotion. They all play side by side at the same theaters, with the same large posters and coming attraction previews before movies. In the States, foreign film previews have no dialogue, an attempt to downplay the fact that you will be reading subtitles when you watch the film. Here in Paris, even films like Swordfish have the same previews we do but with subtitles—not very easy to read, mind you, in the hyperkinetic quick cutting of a Joel Silver-produced action film trailer.

Here it seems more of a free marketplace. With its mom and pop theaters, I can go to the same small theater each day for two weeks and see a different film. It would be nice to have more of that at home. Sure, there are giant theater chains here (serving beer! Vincent Vega was no liar…), but they coexist with the smaller theaters that play the revival films as well as new ones. The creature comforts are fewer, but that’s not why everyone goes to the cinema.

I remember going to see Dead Man in 1997, at Les Cinoche de St. Germain, in the Latin Quarter. In addition to regular showings of new films, there are showings, usually one per week, of each revival film at some sort of odd hour, like 11:25 on a Thursday morning. When I arrived, there was a line of about 15 people (for a theater that fit about 50). The minutes went on, past 11:15, then 11:20, then 11:25. We all stood around grumbling, until an unshaven man in his late 40s came by on a bicycle. Sorry,sorry, sorry, overslept, not a problem, don’t worry about a thing. He locked up the bike, unlocked and raised the chain link security fence, went inside to the ticket booth and quickly sold us all tickets. Then he was behind the concession counter, making popcorn. Two years later, at the same theater, I saw Elizabeth. There was an assistant this time, a colorful little man who was quite vocal as he began to seat latecomers, many of whom were solo, next to people he felt they would find agreeable. Part cinema, part social club.

Perhaps there is a bit of a glorification going on; earlier this week I walked by a theater that had a film called Happy Accidents, directed by Brad Anderson, starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei. I was intrigued by an American film I had not heard of with these stars. And yet, if I was walking the aisles at Blockbuster, it would not be out of the ordinary to pass a little VHS box of a film called Happy Accidents and shrug, saying to myself, "Well, this went straight to video; it must be a piece of crap."

There is an openness to films that don’t garner much attention in the States, led first and foremost by those of Woody Allen, for example, or an 8mm film called I Am Josh Polonski’s Brother that has been around awhile in Paris but which I had not heard of. It stars Richard Edson, veteran of Spike Lee films and perhaps best known, to his eternal grimace perhaps, as the bizarre parking garage attendant who takes Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari for a joyride in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The film was presented in side letterboxes, in order to preserve the original 8mm aspect ratio. At times I thought it was missing something, as if it wasn’t a "real" movie. But then I realized that, its graininess aside, the movie varied little from watching a 35mm film cropped to fit a television set, which we often happily do. It is an interesting film, one that feels gritty, much like Taxi Driver before films about gritty subjects looked too nice. Ultimately, I don’t think I liked the film’s choices in plot, but I admire it very much for taking some big chances and going its own way.

Much of the pleasure of watching the film was having each moment come to me naturally. There was no anticipation of any scenes from the preview, no big Hollywood actor’s "secret" cameo. It was just a film that had Richard Edson in it, and it was in English. Similarly, two years ago I saw EXISTENZ, by David Cronenberg; all I had known beforehand were his name and the stars. And again, it was a genuine pleasure to not have been inundated with hype about it beforehand, or an ad campaign that revealed anything about the film at all.

Certainly, film advertisements are more ubiquitous than in the States, yet without billboards and buildingsides. The ads here are geared toward pedestrians, not drivers, which I think makes all the difference in terms of class. You know the films that are being shown, but you don’t feel encroached upon in the way that some product advertisements do.


Just some of the films playing, with the original soundtrack and French subtitles, this week:

Billy Elliot, Blow, Buffalo 66, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Dune, Fast and the Furious, Fire Walk With Me, The Glenn Miller Story, Heartbreakers, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Party, Planet of the Apes, The Pledge, Requiem For A Dream, Rush Hour 2, The Score, Shrek, Swordfish, Traffic and Videodrome.

If that weren’t enough, there are retrospectives for Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch and Hitchcock, playing at least a handful of the films of each. Clearly, there is enough to do in Paris without seeing anything but movies. This is something that writer/commentator/NPR contributor and all around joyful-presence-to-be-exposed-to David Sedaris discovered when he lived here. He claimed to have a schedule of six to seven films a week and to have created itineraries for visiting friends that consisted only of moviegoing. In his essay The City of Light in the Dark, he writes that he was often told that it’s wasteful to live in Paris and spend all your time watching movies. "It’s like going to Cairo to eat cheeseburgers. ‘You can do that back home,’ people say. But they’re wrong. I couldn’t live like this back home. With very few exceptions, video killed the American revival house." "In France," Sedaris writes, "film is considered an intellectual pursuit here, on par with reading literature." Likewise, we know that Film is an Art. And here, the very act of moviegoing is as well.

The only problem that remains is all these interesting French films that, due to the language barrier, I cannot see while here. I’d like to say that I’ll just wait until they open in the States, but there is little reciprocity. Of all the French films released each year, something like five percent are shown in theaters Stateside. But that’s another story.

Click here to read Journal entry #1.