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PARIS – I had promised a two-part analysis on the new iron triangle of Iran, Russia and China to celebrate the launch of atimes.net, but I knew trouble was brewing as soon as my Thai mobile started ringing.
Still dizzy after a long flight from Asia, still dreaming of the energy/nuclear/weapons love-fest linking Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao and of course already being sucked in by the usual Parisian hedonistic, gastronomic orgy, I sensed red alert as soon as that voice came out with the usual perfect mix of analysis and synthesis: “Let’s go to the movies.” Like in a trashy Hong Kong action flick, I could instantly feel the two-part article gloriously bursting out in flames.
The voice belonged to Le Mec du Quartier (LMDQ). In English, that would roughly translate into The Dude in the Hood. The quartier, or hood, in this case is Bastille, where LMDQ controls extensive holdings, from bike racing to 1960s garage music and of course prime real estate, where the sound of his myriad Polish building contractors buzzing about unabated even in times of financial crisis can be heard.
Thus in no time, decked out in World War II vintage helmets, we were crisscrossing Paris on a vintage Triumph, its mighty roar frightening the assorted package tourists eager to conduct serial snap shooting of the Seine, the Louvre and the (extinct) Bastille. Instead of a straight route that would take us 10 minutes, LMDQ opted for a motorized Tour de France with spectacular detours worthy of a trashy Luc Besson flick.
I could see the hasty preparations for the launching of Paris plage – an actual beach by the Seine, sand included, offered to jaded (or too broke to go on holiday) Parisians every year from mid-July to mid-August by the city council, to the modest tune of 2.5 million euros (US$3.6 million). On a more imperial register, General Stanley McChrystal’s finest, in southern Helmand province in Afghanistan, certainly could use a Paris plage under scorching 50 degree Celsius heat – and leave the poppy-and-Taliban-busting hard work to remote-controlled Predator drones.
No babes in bikinis in Helmand, and no babes in burqas by the Seine, the new obsession of the perpetually bling-bling President Nicolas Sarkozy, aka mini-Sarko, aka Nicolas the First – who believes this is another insidious Islamic plot to undermine the values of this most secular of republics. Actually I saw a burqa, not the light blue Afghan kind; it was someone dressed up in a made-in-Saudi jilbab plus niqab, doing reportage for a French blog on people’s reactions – from extreme fascination to utter horror – when confronted with a live, walking burqa. That someone – a remixed version of Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot – happened to be a man.
LMDQ’s Triumph eventually brought us to our final destination – the Saint-Germain-des-Pres, one of the few, mythic, small Parisian movie houses surviving in an otherwise mythical quartier which had seen a more meaningful existence (and we’re not even talking about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir rewiring the world at the Cafe de Flore). That was when the psychoanalysis bookshop Le Divan, a stone’s throw from the cinema, had not yet been demolished to make way for a Dior outlet.
LMDQ’s movie was Divorzio all’italiana – billed as “the Italian comedy of this summer”. Would that be another soap opera of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi involving armies of semi-naked nymphets at his villa-cum-fortress in Sardinia? Perhaps – after all, the premier and owner of AC Milan football club was too busy fighting a perfectly legal divorce filed by his wife Veronica. Would that concern the First (Italian) Lady of France, the predatory Carla Bruni-Sarkozy? Definitely not, she was too busy playing the pop star in New York singing in homage to former South African president Nelson Mandela – and Sarko would never give her a divorce anyway, even if she hit Mick Jagger (again).
Instead of our sorry post-modern drabness, this was the genuine article: a digitally restored copy of the glorious 1961 black-and-white masterpiece by Pietro Germi (Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1963), starring the one and only Marcello Mastroianni. Divorce – Italian-style, as it became known in the US, was the movie that spawned by itself the Italian-style comedy genre.
Suddenly there he was – descending on us like an apparition, stooped eyes, a tick in his mouth, always sporting an immaculate cigarette-holder, an air of Sartrean ennui poisoned by the suffocating Sicilian heat. Marcello plays insufferably decadent Sicilian baron Ferdinando Cefalu. But this is no Visconti as in The Leopard – this is commedia dell’arte worked out in a plot that without showing any skin is absolutely drenched in sex.
The baron is madly in love with his young cousin Angela (the ravishing Stefania Sandrelli), but he is already married to a mustachioed hag. So he develops an arcane plot to kill his wife. The motive is to defend his honor – as he finds out that she has always had a flame herself, a World War II soldier turned art restorer, with a penchant for rococo. When she elopes with him, Marcello is disgraced. The whole Sicilian village wants him to avenge his honor.
Germi duly suicide-bombs Rossellini neo-realism into Italy’s drab, early 1960s “modernity”. When a cadre from the on-the-rise Communist Party ties to impart some historic materialism insights into his Sicilian village audience regarding the adultery case, they roar in unison: “Whore!” Karl Marx defeated by KO.
Germi also pulls a Brecht and chews up meta-cinema by throwing Federico Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita right in the middle of his plot. He just needs to show the whole village – no casting needed, just the local faces – crammed into the local cinema watching the “Tiberian-style orgies”, as one of them puts it, all mesmerized by uber-Valkyrie Anita Ekberg’s erotic power.
As her siren call, drenched in the middle of the Trevi fountain, goes: “Marceeeello!!!” Ah, Marcello … They don’t make movies like this anymore. What about a Divorzio all’italiana set in the Pashtun tribal areas, with a local girl eloping with a US Marine (or maybe, in Barbarella fashion, with a sexy drone?)
And what would Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei make of Marcello’s amorous martyrdom? Would he blame it all on decadent interventionism by foreign powers? Rowdy Putin would certainly love it – he would be glad to pull the trigger against the unfaithful wife himself. As for inscrutable Hu, he would rather ditch the whole thing and worry about single (and unhorny) Uyghur males.
Back in the cool breeze of summer in Saint-Germain, LMDQ ended up convincing me about the inevitable – a homage to quintessential Marcello in La Dolce Vita. Starting with bottles of chilled Sancerre at the Bonaparte, right beside the cinema, watching babes not in burqas. Then the best English haunt in Bastille, makers of a mean mojito, right in front of an “international” youth hostel where LMDQ – cutting a dashing figure, with his black Hong Kong-embroidered dragon shirt and his Sydney Pollack glasses, plays Don Corleone to tattooed chicks from Yorkshire, bronzed nymphs from the Cote d’Azur and every biker and his neighbor.
Some outsider would always need to be reminded that the real party is not at the bar but upstairs, at one of LMDQ’s penthouses, with a classic view of Parisian roofs, where he entertains with the grooviest San Francisco sounds and the funkiest New Orleans rare grooves enchained with Shadows by John Cassavetes – New York in black and white before the civil rights movement – video-projected on his giant home screen.
Forget Khamenei. This is what permanent revolution is all about. Marcello will always be the real supreme leader. He’s still capable of making grown men miss press deadlines – call it yet another metaphor for the death of journalism. The two-part on the Iran, Russia and China iron triangle, of course, burst out in flames. But, as in a gory Wes Craven flick, it will be back, reconstituted as a mutant at atimes.net. But first, another bottle of chilly Sancerre, please.