It was the diminutive Corsican nutcase and emperor Napoleon who chanced upon the winning formula of bread and circuses for the public at large, certainly less foolhardy than the General’s royal predecessor Marie Antoinette, who tried to helpfully nudge the great unwashed in the direction of some brioche and got a blade in the neck for her troubles. Du pain et des jeux is a winning formula that still works in France to this very day, and while in the UK art funding got slashed out of existence by the cretinous Jeremy Hunt in 2010, the big state here knows how to keep the people sweet and is only too aware they wouldn’t stand for it were it taken away; history is littered with cautionary examples of why Parisiennes are not a bunch you want to collectively upset.
Paris is still a society of spectacle, and there’s always something to look forward to just around the corner, whether it’s Fête de la Musique, la Fête du Cinéma or tonight’s fandango, Nuit Blanche, an art showcase involving the whole city, where museums and galleries open their doors until dawn. These happenings I’ve mentioned have disseminated all across the globe, but it’s no coincidence that they began life here in Paris.
I know it’s a cliché but Parisians in my experience love to watch, whether its regarding art, or cinema or the look of good food or just watching each other sat outside cafés or others flâneuring on by. Last night I saw a young man emerging from a shop with a copy of Down By Law in his hand, the lucky thing. I looked where he’d come from and there it was, a DVD rental shop rammed with people and gone 9:30pm. Quite right too. How I admire the stubborn refusal to even acknowledge there’s a thing called Netflix. I too hope to browse until I die – not in the internet sense – and partake in the ceremonial exchange of physical cash with another mortal wherever possible until aforementioned coil wriggling time.
A major attraction at this year’s Nuit Blanche was a four-piece orchestral ensemble playing Karlheinz Stockhausen in helicopters. I headed down with my friend Bobby Barry and crammed onto Pont Neuf to check it out, though from what we could gather from the tannoy it seemed technical problems were delaying the show. Still, it was heartening to see so many squeezed onto a bridge in anticipation of avant garde atonal noise. Canal Plus were waiting too, and wait we all did.
It was rather like being a spectator at a boat race, in that you’re not sure why you’re situated where you are, and once the money shot occurs and the procession whizzes by you you’re suddenly compelled to drift away guiltily before the event has even concluded. The four helicopters passed over in sequence about 15 minutes in and that precise thing happened after some inevitable whooping. One might have stuck around if the sound wasn’t so glitchy and the signal didn’t keep breaking down. It was a far better idea than it was a spectacle; good on paper, schizer in the skyzer. But still, there’s a limitless supply of art pimping itself until breakfast time for anyone who felt short changed.
Napoleon liked his art showy. King of the understatement he was not. An unpleasant egomaniac he might have been, but it was his drive that beat Paris into shape before his nephew Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann finished the job half a century later. Two of his ostentatious interventions are my least favourite attractions in Paris, the Place de la Concorde, apparently built to rival the piazza in Roma and the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Élysées, a stupid monolith of monumental crassness and bombast. Apparently Bonaparte wanted to finish it off with a giant elephant on top and nobody quite knows why, although I for one wish he had, and I imagine him barking orders like Ian Holm in Time Bandits. Now there’s a proper good film I haven’t seen for a while, I wonder if that DVD shop’s still open.