Squats That Went Straight: Dispatches into Alternative Art Culture in Paris

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By: Kera Mogue
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Wisps of smoke intertwined with music escape through the window, which is cracked open ever so slightly to properly air the studio. Pascal is oblivious to the steady flow of observers that walk through his open air gallery as his hands craft the next project: a canvas that uses the principles of light perception to optimize the visual experience of the observer. “When I was invited to work here, my only condition was that I wouldn’t work in trash”. Pascal prefers the company of his clients to the solitude of his courtyard, where he used to design his masterpieces. He could care less that artists at illegal squats look down on him for “selling out”.

At the 59 Rivoli art gallery, 30 artists spread their studios over 6 spacious floors and have the opportunity to interact with their visitors on a daily basis. The artists welcome local bands and singers to expose their work by contacting the administration. Located in one of Paris’s most commercial districts, this squat-turned art gallery is undergoing an audit by the government of Paris to verify that all artists are properly paying their dues, among approximately 40 other items on the list.

The Story Behind the Squat
Before 2001, “59 Rivoli” was the shortened address of a squat called “chez Robert électron libre”: a community of artists illegally living and working in close quarters. “It was a tree in the forest of other squats in the city,” explains Pascal. His good friend and fellow artist Gaspard found the building, which had been empty for 15 years and belonged to Crédit Lyonnais. As the leader of the group of artists, he fought for their right to stay there when the city of Paris threatened to seize the building and expel them.

Gaspard hired a lawyer that insisted they use the “lois d’hiver” (laws of winter) to their benefit. The laws of winter state that squatters may stay in a building from November 1 to March 15 without being expelled as long as they did not enter the building by force. So they stayed where they were. Before winter had turned to spring, the giant snowball of the press and the public had melted into a puddle of success; the squat had gained such a large acquaintance that the city of Paris decided to purchase the building in 2001 and let the squatters stay as long as the association paid its monthly rent.

Today, that rent equals €130 per artist, or €3,900 euros total a month. The audit being carried out by the Mairie of Paris is to verify that each and every artist whose work is on display in the gallery is paying rent to 59 Rivoli to prevent ongoing squatting and undue exposure for friends of resident artists. The audit also involves making sure the gallery is open when it says it will be and that the building meets fire codes. The results of this audit will determine whether or not the Mairie decides to renew the contract with the 59 Rivoli association.

“If the audit fails and the City is not happy, it’s all over,” says James Purpura, an artist from Ohio.

Although James’ 6 month stay is almost over, he hopes to move up on the waiting list. But competition is rough. “It’s very communal here. People here feel like they have the right to make use of an abandoned space. This is owned by the people, it’s accessible to everyone.” Indeed, the gallery’s open door policy and free entry represent the change in attitude toward alternative art galleries in a culture that prides itself on prodigies of the past.
The political attaché of the city of Paris said : “The politics of squats has evolved since we bought the squat and is continuing to change.” It is true that in the past decade, the political aspects of squats consisted of a binary pitting classist ideology against that of a counterculture. When trying to make a statement about homelessness, individual resistance and collective resistance are not synonymous.

According to Cécile Pechu, artistic squats in Paris are traditionally collectives based on the counter-cultural concept of redistribution of wealth. Pascal Foucart’s baguette sculpture says it all: a 2×4 row of freshly baked baguettes are lacquered in brightly colored acrylic paints, illustrating the daily action of buying bread without realizing that some people are too poor to afford such a luxury. While this work of art is a clear example of counter-classism, today it is appreciated by the public thanks to the government’s purchase of the property in 2001. Without 59 Rivoli’s current level of exposure, Pascal would still be painting in an empty courtyard.
Jeux Politiques
As the politics of squats softens, the housing market in Paris gets even more competitive.

“Squats, especially the illegal kind, have a short life-span”. Pascal references La Miroiterie in the 20th district of Paris, which has recently been shut down due to property laws. A dozen artists will have to find a new home, and 8 others will be losing their workspaces.

Despite the level of culture the squat contributes to the neighborhood, they have no choice but to concede to the property demand. For galleries like le Point Ephémère, being endorsed by Paris is good news, as it gives structure to their exhibits and allows them to be creative in other ways. Still, Le Point Ephémère is about to be closed, too, and art-loving Parisians are buzzing about it.

Not all artists have a circulation of over 40,000 people a year in their studio. Some of them do not want this kind of traffic because it disrupts their creative process. Still, the future forecast for squats can’t be too cloudy if the government is going along with the concept of alternative art in an abandoned space.
The results of the current audit at 59 rue de Rivoli will determine the future of a place that offers 30 different perspectives and a cultural spot different from all the rest. Like the sign on the second floor says, ‘Earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘meh’.

 
For more information about expositions and upcoming events, visit the official gallery website of 59 Rivoli.

Note: This piece was also published on Citizenside. You can find the original here.

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Paris : La Bohème Expo at Le Grand Palais

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Wikipedia: Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds

“Je sais quand je suis né, mais pas pourquoi…” – Proverbe Rom

Walking through the archways of Le Grand Palais is sort of creepy. Nobody expects to find themselves in a damp wooded labrynth with gilded paintings and burgundy tapestries. La Bohème Expo in the Grand Palais gallery is coordinated to match the Bohemian lifestyle, which is to constantly be living in tune with nature, and to always be on the move.

Ceiling

Artists started recreating Bohemia right around the plague— in other words, the mid-15th century. The paintings featured a chaste virgin/tempting gypsy dichotomy. Gypsies, or Roms, had been around in Europe for centuries before art made them famous, though. Their traveling lifestyle formed the foundation of the philosophy based on living off of the good intentions or naiveté of others. Roms found their way to Western Europe through Bohemia, or what is now called the Czech Republic.
The Bohemian

“La Bohèmienne” – Pierre Auguste Renoir
PHOTO: Gilles Nèret

The exhibition begins with plaques written in French and English, explaining the history of Roms in Central and Western Europe. The first statue is a marble bust of a chaste Bohemian woman. The following paintings show gypsies and women who wore their hair down and curly (gasp), defying social norms and rendering them rebels of the times. Renoir’s “La Bohèmienne” has a girl with long wavy hair and a worried look on her face, probably due to the auspicious bulge in her stomach. Audio guides go into further detail about the alleged inspiration behind each painting.
Van Gogh

“A Pair of Shoes” – Vincent Van Gogh
PHOTO: Leslie Parke

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting resonates with the traveling spirit of Bohemianism. It’s not about the quality of the shoes, it’s about where the person wearing them has been and what they’ve experienced.
“Qui voyage beaucoup, apprend beaucoup…” – Proverbe Rom
At one point or another, every Bohemian gets the travel bug. But this is a specific kind of wanderlust, the kind that makes people crave crépes and hot wine. The Montmartre neighborhood in Paris has aging cafes and cabarets that draw artists like flies to honey. Le Chat Noir is the family crest for people that used to thrive in these social boxes, whether it was to philosophize, commiserate, or participate in some harmless debauchery. The painter, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, was born on the hill in Montmartre.
Montmartre

“Le Chat Noir” – Theophile Alexandre Steinlen

Glorified by counter-culturists to this day, the Bohemian era is still not over. Each decade, the creative milieu reinvents it to incarnate the sentiment of the times. The beatniks, the hippies, the squatters, and the ravers of today all have one thing in common: a reverence for all things Bohème.
A bunch of people at the exhibit were dressed up like the museum was a themed party. No one else got that memo. I guess the freedom of La vie Bohème is too attractive to pass up.

Paris : Edward Hopper Expo at Le Grand Palais

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It takes a prestigious exhibition to make the French miss their leisurely lunch break. The Edward Hopper exhibition at Le Grand Palais in Paris attracted throngs of hardcore fans when it opened to the public on October 10, 2012. Le Grand Palais is an haute-gamme gallery located in the 8th district of Paris near the Champs-Élysées with display halls that are vaulted and angled like veritable culture caves.Walking up the gilded staircases, at least three different languages were being spoken amongst the crowds gathered in the towering arched doorway.

Two security checks later, we entered the first room, whose high ceilings give the impression of an endless treasure trove. Excited whispers scurried past my ears like mice on a cheese-hunt. These were die-hard art lovers who lied to their bosses to come see an expo an hour after it opened with their Cartes Sesames, which grant them full access and line-cutting privileges to the most popular museums in Paris. The Louboutin heels and glistening watch bands say it all : we were made to critique. And critique they do.

Born in Nyack, New York, Edward Hopper struggled for recognition before leaving to expand his perspective in Paris. When there, he associated with the likes of Charles Burchfield, Alfred Stieglitz, and Reginald Marsh. The progression in his style is obvious; Hopper’s painting got better and bigger after he studied in the City of Lights. Eerie lighting gives off a Tim Burton-esque vibe that only intensifies in grim pieces like ‘Night Hawks” and “Soir Bleu”.

"Nighthawks"

“Nighthawks” – 1942

"Soir Bleu"

“Soir Bleu” – 1914

As one of the most famous realist painters of the 20th century, Hopper takes unexpected scenes from everyday life and turns them into masterpieces. In “Gas”, a row of petrol pumps near the highway are showcased in all their ordinary splendor.

"Gas"

“Gas” – 1940

Oil painting was Hopper’s medium of choice, but Le Grand Palais reserved a room just for his etchings. Regardless of where it was completed, his work is so relatable that it serves as a bridge between American and French culture.

house

“The Lonely House” – 1923

Comprising over 100 pieces, Hopper’s oeuvre evokes a plethora of moods by illustrating the tension between tradition and modernity, cities and nature, men and women. His work is immensely appreciated by people of various backgrounds in French culture. A woman I spoke to at the museum said : “I think Hopper has a rare talent. He can make people marvel over the greatness of a house standing in a prairie, or gas pumps on the side of the road.” For the French, Hopper’s work is an enlarged exoticism of American culture, with just the right touch of nostalgia to reach beyond the retinas of Old World residents.

Back in Loca-motion

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Back in loca-motion.

It’s been months since I’ve blogged. I underwent an invasive operation in Kosovo, touched homebase briefly, and secured a journalism internship in Paris. I’m currently living a blue-collar lifestyle in one of the richest neighborhoods in Paris. I live in the maids quarters of a noble Countess that is so desperate for money that she makes store-brand hotdogs and frozen peas for her tenants.

I pedal a rental bike through the boulevards and wonder at the smoothness of the ride, the rules that drivers follow, the people who reach into their wallets on café terraces with blasé smiles on their faces. This is the first world. Secondly, most people don’t seem to notice all the individual stones that make up the legendary cobblestone streets of one of the most developed cities in the world. The third time’s a charm : she is mature, but she is not fully evolved.

The Parisian lifestyle sounds glamourous, but it is in fact far from it. I find beauty in little things, closing my eyes when I listen to music so as not to look at the crumbling ceiling in my little box of a room. For now, poordom is okay. Being viewed as a heroic American savior in Kosovo this past summer made me realise that I don’t need a lot of purchasing power to be happy. In fact, I was the unhappiest I had ever been in Pristina, regardless of the fact that some of the locals looked at me and smelled wealth and roads paved with gold in their own version of the American dream. Keeping busy to run from reality, staying on track to fill up time, keeping focussed to nail the deadline, isn’t that what we do in the Western world ? The Steely Dan song ‘Here in the Western World’ popped into my head constantly as I fantasised about handsome architecture, a functioning postal system, potable drinking water, and uranium-free air. I saw the slowness of southern Europe as a disability rather than a different choice. After all, it’s all about the choices we make, day in and day out. But the friendliness and the warmth of those people stayed with me, and now I understand the difference between the modern disconnect and the old-age adage that says “Treat your neighbor to biscuits made of gold, you never know when you’ll be cold”. Actually, I just thought that up.

But what’s up with this cliché H-word ? Why are people so obsessed with pursuing it ? I did an epistemological inquiry to figure it out for one of my high school English assignments and investigated the up-and-coming field of positive psychology. This branch of the humanities promotes a positive outlook and shows statistics of human development indices (HDI) in Scandinavian countries, which are the highest in the world due to their government model and other cultural factors that I don’t know (yet). It’s probably got something to do with the fact that they ride their bikes everywhere and eat delicious smoked salmon.

Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is just an ideal. A wise person once told me that contentment comes from the good moments that make up a week. Eating well, listening to good music, seeing art, having sex… each of these moments should be savored so that when looking back on them, you realise the fleeting impermanence of all emotions and situations, whether fortunate, unfortunate, or anywhere else on the gamut. I try to have as many of these good moments as possible, and I appreciate good luck when it comes my way. As for being happy ? That’s a butterfly that still hasn’t landed on my shoulder.

For now, I’d rather be poor in Paris.

Fifteen

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The tinny sound of jazz comes from a transistor radio, filling the humid air as my friends prepare a five-course French meal for which I typed the menu. It almost feels as though I never left Paris. The emphasis on fine ingredients, indulgence, and conviviality is ever-present, and the organized kitchen chaos is strangely comforting. This is not to say, however, that the past couple weeks back in Chicago have been smooth sailing.

The first thing I noticed when I strolled the streets of France was the crossing signal– the person in motion was significantly more petite than the one my eyes were accustomed to seeing in the States. Au contraire, the first thing I noticed when my plane landed in Chicago was the large number of overweight people, and the fact that almost everyone was wearing clothes that Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public : sweats, t-shirts, sneakers, and gym shorts. What was this foreign land, and how did I manage to spend twenty-one years of my life partaking in this peculiar culture ?

The next day was Mother’s Day. I arrived at the local grocery store to pick up a white cod for some good old fashioned quenelles, Lyon style. As I walked through the immense parking lot and entered the incredibly wide automatic sliding doors, I noticed that I was overdressed. Apparently, a scarf, makeup, and tights are unnecessary to keep up public appearances here. The clerks and the customers were smiling at me, and I couldn’t understand why. I had never met these people before, so why were they bothering to make eye contact with me ? As I left the yogurt aisle, I wondered aloud why every single brand was fat-free and contained corn starch and food coloring. Had I grown up eating impure yogurt ?

Being accustomed to the low murmurs of the Parisian metro, my first trip on the El (Chicago’s metro) was disturbing. Reading a book was out of the question — I could barely hear my own thoughts over the yells of obnoxious Cubs fans in my train car. After I got off the train, I used a public restroom and drank from a water fountain, all for free. What a generous and wasteful country to come back to !

The other night, I went to Northwestern University campus for a “festival” called Dillo Day during which many people drink themselves into oblivion and listen to commercial music all day long. As I left the show, I looked back at a girl laughing while she puffed on a joint and flipped her hair. I realized I was no better than the people in this crowd, and certainly no less ignorant. My all-nighters at the Rex in Paris are over, and no outdoor pop-electro act could ever replace them.

I spent two hours wandering the winding campus paths looking for my car, to no avail. At that moment more than ever before in my life, I wished that Evanston had a better metro system. With no signposts or storefronts to guide my way, I was utterly lost in American culture with no way out. I walked to the corner store and bought some sour candy to match my mood while waiting for my ride to pick me up. These streets weren’t dangerous, and there were no discoveries around the corner. I was stranded in suburbia, but my situation was way less comical than the one in Dude, Where’s My Car ?


The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind ?” is more like it. America is more new and bizarre to me now than ever before. With every outing and cultural faux pas, I’m peeling back the layers of this country to reveal its core. Whether rotten, fresh, or somewhere in between, it’s definitely worth the dig.

Ten

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Today begins like any other weekday. I rise up from a deep slumber to a tinny ringtone coming from the first Nokia device ever made–a cell phone that I am proud to claim as my own.

I stumble downstairs to have breakfast à la Française–a little French baguette soaked in black coffee and yogurt cushioned with a bed of honey on the bottom. This is all doused in cinnamon, of course.  My host sister comes down to eat with me and we discuss my cinema and literature class at the Sorbonne. I’ve been having trouble appreciating this class purely because of the time-frame, the prof, and the lack of friendly students. Welcome to Paris. All of my speculation leads her to ask me the simple question of whether or not I think of movies as fully anchored in reality or not, to which I respond ‘yes’. This petite breakfast club session makes me re-evaluate cinema’s place in my life. I realize that this class I’m in is actually giving me cultural reference and connecting me to people who have good taste. That’s not so bad.

Next, I work on a cover letter for an internship and head out to Bastille to meet up with a friend for lunch. We eat at a café/bistro while sitting outside in the surprisingly scorching sun until my quiche Lorraine looks like it’s about to refry itself on my plate. It’s a relaxing French meal (read : not a lot of food consumed in an hour) and the walk home consists of a discussion about identity and the intersection between theory and practice. I come to the conclusion that in order for me to live better, I need a delicate balance between the two.

I run upstairs to change my coat because it’s sunny and hot outside while I stroll down the boulevard to get to my Geography class at l’Institut Catholique de Paris.  The building itself is old, yet the kids are hip chain smokers whose parents drop mad cash for this very private, very expensive university in the heart of the city of lights. Basically, ICP is the French version of DePaul, my soon-to-be alma mater. Our airhead teacher is late per usual, and I half-listen to two student presentations–one on Colombia and one on Brazil–as I daydream about the possibilities of mixing cobalt and jade. After class, I partake in a cloppe session with some classmates and take the metro to the Latin Quarter for babysitting at 4:30.

I accidentally take the train one stop too far. The bus outside helps me backtrack, and as I walk onto the Place St. Michel from the metro, I see a small young man playing a grand old piano right in front of the gargantuan fountain. Entranced by the melodic purity of it all, I stay until he finishes the overture. I clap sincerely. It’s during the short duration of time that it takes for me to wait for the crosswalk signal to turn green that a scarf-clad French man wearing Gucci shades tells me that he also loved the piano man and that I look elegant today. Awkward. I spot a classmate of mine just behind him, and I walk over to her side and start chatting her up. Success : the creeper is out of sight.

fontaine st. michel

fontaine st. michel

The two of us spend a few minutes looking at clothes before I excuse myself to meet Madeleine, the seven year old girl I watch and speak English with, at her school. The kid and I mosey on over to the park across the street, which happens to be right in front of the famous Sorbonne. I meet a man on the bench next to me who speaks near-perfect English with an American accent, and I ask him why he doesn’t speak with a posh British accent like most of the other Parisians I’ve met. He tells me it’s because he’s got a musical ear. Turns out he’s in the movie industry.  He gives me some useful tips on screenwriting and teaches me new French words, supporting my conviction that anti-American sentiments in France are exaggerated.  After the park, we go back to the house and Madeleine’s dad, the jolly plastic surgeon, is already there. I’m free as a bird, and I take the bus home to take care of business, eat dinner, and write this blog post.

Freedom : what does it really mean ? After all, Article 4 in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (why man ?) says :

La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui : ainsi l’exercice des droits naturels de chaque homme n’a de bornes que celles qui assurent aux autres Membres de la Société, la jouissance de ces mêmes droits. Ces bornes ne peuvent être déterminées que par la Loi.

HUMAN RIGHTS

HUMAN RIGHTS

This passage effectively states that we all have the right to do anything that does not hurt any other person, and that your liberty cannot stop others from exercising these same rights as human beings. Right on.

I enjoy being free, so naturally I like this article. For anyone who speaks French, it’s a spectacularly written declaration. Still, reading it makes me wonder about how free we all really are. One thing leads to another, and my day has turned into a big jumble of connect-the-dots–seemingly unrelated events that I have to think about in order to find causalities.

Still, causality ≠ correlation.

If my head hadn’t been in the clouds, would I have taken the metro one stop too far earlier today ? Would I have evaded being hit on by Fonzie, spent time with my classmate, or sat on the same bench as the French man with the musical ear ?

An insect flaps its wings and a tsunami happens on the other side of the world.

My daydreams are like butterflies, and the chaos that is Paris is beautiful.

Seven

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As a continuation on my last post, the exception to the moderation rule seems to be McDonald’s. Lovingly called Mack Dough by the Froggies, these establishments are more like three star restaurants than greasy fast-food joints. Glistening tables and well-groomed employees give way to a stellar food menu that forms a solid first impression on foreigners entering a French McDonald’s. The chevre (goat cheese) wrap is particularly tempting, as it is glazed in a honey sauce and topped with toasted dill flakes. I don’t eat McDonald’s regardless of which country I’m in, but I guess if I didn’t grow up in a culture that raised me to be afraid of meat, I, too, would visit this magnificent mecca of American commercial culture to sup with Ronald by my side on the reg.

chevre wrap

The portions at Mack Dough are significantly smaller than in the United States, and the ‘super size’ option has never existed here. Moderation is in effect–not in the frequency of McDonald’s visits, but rather in the amount of food the establishment designates for one person. http://www.france24.com/en/20110203-fat-patients-force-british-ambulances-supersize

Paris is the fashion capital of the world, but the women’s wear is decidedly more conservative than the places I’ve been in America, save for Amish country. That being said, I have yet to visit Salt Lake City, so I can’t make any generalizations. Skirts and shorts are most often fingers’ length and are worn with tights. When worn without tights, they’re met with scorn and shock from other women who feel bad for the naïve little girl who dares to enter the metro with bare legs– doesn’t she know the unspoken code ? When I visited the biggest mosque in Paris with a guy friend of mine in October, I was wearing shorts without tights (I don’t care) and was forced by the proverbial “bouncer” to put on a long wraparound skirt in order to cover my lascivious legs before entering the premises. It seems that bare legs should be saved for night clubs, but even that is a rarity. Apparently tights just give your outfit that little extra flair, and that’s definitely what Parisians have got going on. The girls have mastered the just-rolled-out-of-bed look replete with bomber jacket, messy hair, combat boots, and cigarette in hand. The men are more or less metrosexual, which has given my already-faulty gaydar a run for its money. A scarf, matching clothes–usually consisting of tweed, corduroy, and/or skinny jeans–and oversized headphones can hip-ify even the homeliest of males.

stylin

I brought my Lacoste shower bag with me thinking it was BCBG (bon chic bon genre,) but it turns out that Lacoste is the thug brand of Europe. Lacoste is to Europe what Rocawear is to the United States. This uninformed mistake has done nothing but boost my street cred, so I’m not too upset about it.

ally

But after reading Crime by Irvine Welsh, I realized that criminals identify more with the little alligator than with the inflated prestige of the brand itself.  Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister & Co. are huge here–flashback to the 1990s ! I tried explaining to multiple French people who were the same age as me that these brands are no longer that popular in the States. This statement was met with a confused stare, and I followed up by explaining that many people try and dress as the Europeans do. This is the biggest conundrum I’ve found so far : America is like Europe’s annoying younger sibling. America is profoundly influenced by Europe’s rich history, but Europe is undoubtedly influenced by America’s creativity and innovation in all things, but especially music and cinema.

The American music is a couple of decades behind the times, but that’s okay. I don’t really mind hearing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in a bar, but when it’s followed up with “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations, I start feeling like maybe the Parisian metro is really a time machine.

Sidenote : Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is an allegory for the ways in which Paris has retained so many historical qualities, as well as for how French culture preserves old ways of doing things that are stereotypical to what is considered by many as the Old World mentality. He wasn’t actually going back in time, he just felt like he was. I feel like that too sometimes, especially when they play old music and young French people swing dance to it. Yes, this behavior is totally normal at soirees and house parties, and it’s called Le Rock.

One example of the vagueness and disorganization characteristic of French bureaucracy is the lack of courteous people when waiting to be served. The lines here are non-existent. A queue forms inadvertently and resembles a swarm of fleas; there is no linear formation. Rather, people stand in a triangular crowd and elbow each other to get to the tip of the triangle before everyone else does. The movie theaters are a great manifestation of this phenomenon–I remember the first time I walked in to a movie theater. It was a bank holiday, and I was at the back of the triangle. I looked around at the old wall paneling, the grimy carpets, and the paper posters of the features that were playing, and felt as though I had been teleported back to the 1980s. It turned out that Les Intouchables was sold out– I could not have been happier to leave the scene of déjà vu / pre-cell-phone era. I finally saw the movie not long ago, and it probably deserves a blog post of its own at some point. All I will say for now is that I can’t understand how it blew up so big in France but not in the United States. Aren’t affirmative action and lesbian secretaries what make up a progressive young person’s dreams ? …..

good film