French Lessons

“We’ll always have Paris.” That’s one of the great movie lines of all time, but of course Rick’s Café Américain was a soundstage at Warner Brothers over in Burbank – sunny Casablanca itself was one of the lots out back. Yes, Bogart says those famous words on the tarmac at that wonderfully foggy airport, but that’s actually the Van Nuys airport, now full of corporate jets. And what you saw of Paris in that movie was rear-projection of old stock footage from the vaults – it was 1942 and the Nazis occupied Paris at the time. There was no location shooting. But it’s still a fine line. Paris is where you really are yourself, or where you were, maybe only once, yourself. Everywhere else is compromise, and Los Angeles doubly so.

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that. Two years earlier, in 1940, he was living out his last days in an apartment here on North Laurel Avenue, just a few doors down the street. His Paris, the one of the twenties, with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the rest, was where he had been himself, or maybe had been what he was supposed to be. Now he was tightening up screenplays for the studios, stories others had written, and working on that novel he never managed to finish, The Last Tycoon – and Zelda, now clearly as nuts as everyone had suspected all along, was locked up in that mental hospital in Asheville, in the North Carolina mountains. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It’s likely – in those last years here in Hollywood – Fitzgerald thought of Paris a lot. He’d always have Paris.

That happens a lot in Los Angeles – Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is about a young Hollywood screenwriter who feels that way about Paris, and then, magically, does what Fitzgerald could not do. He somehow goes back to the Paris of the twenties and actually hangs out with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the rest. Of course it’s a disaster. Woody Allen is suspicious of nostalgia – it can ruin you for the now. But everyone knows that. In the Bogart movie no one goes back to Paris. Ilsa gets on the plane to Lisbon and Rick is off to Brazzaville with his new buddy, Captain Renault. There’s a lesson there.

Air France has a non-stop that leaves Los Angeles at seven in the evening and arrives a bit after ten in the morning, the next day, in Paris – there’s a nine hour time difference. You can just up and go there any old time, and that’s pleasant on a Friday evening in early December – or it was for years. It was a way to get out of Los Angeles and all its compromises – two weeks alone in Paris is good for the soul. But it’s not Rick and Ilsa’s Paris, or Fitzgerald’s, and it never was. All that’s just a romantic overlay – what lovers and dreamers and writers and artists bring to the city. The city was only their canvas, if you want to put it that way. Yes, it’s an amazing canvas, perhaps the best there ever was, but stand at the Place de la Concord by that amazing fountain and stare up the Champs Élysées with all the pretty Christmas lights. You’re standing where all those folks were beheaded in their revolution and in the subsequent Reign of Terror – hundreds and hundreds of them.

Paris is a damned bloody place. Stroll through the funky Marais and end up at the bustling Bastille traffic circle by the new opera house – that’s where the prison stood, the one they stormed in 1789 and started the whole business. This was a situation where the Ninety-Nine Percent of the time actually rose up against the One Percent, and they killed them. Then they couldn’t quite work out an alternative to the old corrupt system with its stunning inequalities, leaving things open to any power-mad opportunist to take over and claim he was the answer to what was needed – thus Robespierre and sheer terror, but for the people and by the people, the Ninety-Nine Percent – or so he said.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to play out. You can pull down the system and find that the alternative is worse. Forget the romantic crap and tales of struggling but oddly happy artists. Someone in Hollywood should make a movie about that other Paris, the bloody one.

Actually, someone just has. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat offers this comment on the politics of the new Christopher Nolan Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises:

Nolan is trying to simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse. Across the entire trilogy, what separates Bruce Wayne from his mentors in the League of Shadows isn’t a belief in Gotham’s goodness; it’s a belief that a compromised order can still be worth defending, and that darker things than corruption and inequality will follow from putting that order to the torch. This is a conservative message, but not a triumphalist, chest-thumping, rah-rah-capitalism one: It reflects a “quiet toryism” … rather than a noisy Americanism, and it owes much more to Edmund Burke than to Sean Hannity.

And Matthew Yglesias modifies that thought:

One of the signature elements of American life in 2012 has been the mainstreaming of concern about income inequality. Lots of people who don’t think of themselves as political radicals are upset about it. That probably wouldn’t have been the case in 1972, when the baseline level of income inequality was much lower. And part of what’s going on in The Dark Knight Rises is an effort to eliminate the kind of Paul Krugman / Tim Noah / Barack Obama “I’m a liberal, but I’m worried about inequality.” Instead, an Occupy-esque level of discontent that the rich are “living so high and leaving so little for the rest of us” is voiced by a thief (you’re not going to find Krugman writing columns about how property is theft) and then dissolves into the madness of Bane-ism.

Bane is Robespierre, you see:

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is genuinely a good guy. He’s rich, but his eyes are open to valid critique of other rich people. He blames them for throwing charity balls at which too little of the money goes to actual charitable purposes. He’s concerned about unscrupulous business practices of others. But he certainly doesn’t think that inequality per se is morally problematic, and the charitable work we see him directly involved with is the classic noblesse oblige cause of orphans. Crucially there’s not even a question of whether Wayne deserves to be rich because he’s a “job creator” or because he “built that” – everybody knows he hasn’t done anything to get rich, but the appropriate response is to be a responsible steward of his riches and his family’s legacy rather than to level the playing field.

Things here then get really complicated:

The point here is less to criticism radicalism (about which people have their opinions, come what may) as it is to criticize the new moderate egalitarianism by suggesting that it’s more radical than it seems.

The question is do you want to overturn the existing social order or do you want to defend it against the forces of chaos? If it’s “unfair” that the people in the top position have so much, then it seems like you do want to overturn it. But that’s radical. If it turns out you’re really just sad that orphans are going hungry, then that’s consistent with the status quo. But the solution is basically to persuade wise stewards of the status quo that it’s in their interest to feed orphans rather than have needy teens ending up in the sewers recruited by Bane.

Yea, these things can get out of hand, and Dickens wrote about that in A Tale of Two Cities – and the movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, and his brother and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, did explain that The Dark Knight Rises was inspired by A Tale of Two Cities – which does make some sense.

Forrest Wickman covers the parallels:

The most direct reference to A Tale of Two Cities comes at the end of the film, at Bruce Wayne’s (would-be) burial. Even on an IMAX screen you might not be able to make out the leather-bound book that Gordon holds in his hands, but it is none other than Dickens’ novel of the French Revolution. Rather than quote the book’s famous opening passage, however, Gordon flips to the end, to the novel’s less well-known last lines – “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Gordon’s selection of this passage as Batman’s eulogy is quite apt. First of all, the lines in the book represent the last thoughts of the character Sydney Carton as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice for his loved ones and city – a sacrifice just like the one Batman makes. At the end of the novel, Carton manages to switch places with the character Charles Darnay as Darnay faces execution. As he does so, he expresses faith in his city, just like the faith Batman expresses for Gotham again and again throughout the Batman trilogy.

That’s clever, but this is telling:

The scenes that most boldly evoke A Tale of Two Cities – along with, of course, the novel’s basis in the history of the French Revolution – are the scenes of its vengeful populist uprising. As in A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises depicts a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them. The poor drag the rich from their homes and put them on trial before kangaroo courts. In each revolution, the trials are decided more by the clamor of the crowd than by any due process, and there’s little hope for the defendants.

Ah, so it is a movie about Paris. We’ll always have Paris, even if it’s the one of the terror after the revolution.

Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp see the political philosophy here:

The best way to understand Nolan’s political argument, such as it is, is to step away from contemporary political disputes and pick up an old essay: Judith Shklar’s “The Liberalism of Fear.” Shklar argues that the most universally acceptable moral foundation for individual rights and democracy isn’t any particular religious faith or abstract moral theory – rather, it’s that we’re all scared. We’re scared of the unchecked power of both our fellow citizens and the state, and want a political system capable of reigning in both.

There may not be such a system. That’s what this new movie is about. There’s no such thing as quiet toryism – a quiet defense of the awful status quo, smoothing out the rough edges while the massive bulk of the thing remains deadly. But if you dump the whole system you probably will get Robespierre, and terror. Maybe that’s certain. Spend some time in Paris. You’ll understand.

Our current One Percent understands. Jessica Presser in New York Magazine writes about The Other Barbarians at the Gates – as billionaire Jeff Greene indicates he and his friends in the Hamptons are getting nervous, or should be:

Greene gazes across the bay at the multi-million-dollar houses peeking from behind the trees. I assume he’s quietly contemplating acquiring even more of the shoreline, but then he says something surprising. “If somebody wanted to go after a rich person,” he observes, “they have got their pick of the litter out here.”

It’s strange to imagine someone like Greene, who counts Mike Tyson as a close friend, and who has a streak that caused the L.A. party girls to refer to him as “Mean Jeff Greene,” feeling vulnerable. It’s hard to think of any superrich person as vulnerable, just as it’s hard to think that a bear with outstretched claws and giant teeth is more afraid than you are. But over the past few months, it’s become clear that rich people are very, very afraid. Sometimes it feels like this was the main accomplishment of Occupy Wall Street: a whole lot of tightened sphincters. It’s not a stretch to say many residents of Park Avenue harbor vivid fears of a populist revolt like the one seen in The Dark Knight Rises, in which they cower miserably under their sideboards while ragged hordes plunder the silver.

“This is my fear, and it’s a real, legitimate fear,” Greene says, revving up the engine. “You have this huge, huge class of people who are impoverished. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy, rights, all that stuff will be different.”

It’s 1789 again, but not quite:

More often than not, fears like these manifest as loathing for the current administration, as evidenced by the recent wave of Romney fund-raisers in the Hamptons. “Obama wants to take my money and give it to do-nothing animals,” one matron blurted at a recent party at the Pierre for Dick Morris’s Screwed! – the latest entry into a growing pile of socioeconomic snuff porn geared toward this audience.

That would be Screwed!: How Foreign Countries Are Ripping America Off and Plundering Our Economy-and How Our Leaders Help Them Do It – hardly snuff-porn. No one is calling for anyone to die. And Jeff Greene is not what you think:

Greene, a registered Democrat, isn’t buying this school of thought. “It is kind of a problem in America that so many Americans believe if they elect a different president, everything is going to be fine. This whole idea of American exceptionalism, that we’re the greatest, when people don’t have health insurance, don’t have housing,” he says, swinging past the guesthouse, which has 360-degree views of the bay, and the staff house, which does not.

“There are all these people in this country who are just not participating in the American Dream at all,” he says. This makes him uncomfortable, not least because they might try to take a piece of his. “Right now, for some bizarre reason, a lot of these people are supporting Republicans who want to cut taxes on the wealthy,” he says. “At some point, if we keep doing this, if their numbers are going to keep swelling, it won’t be an Obama or a Romney. It will be a Hollande. A Chávez…”

Digby comments:

I don’t think he’s showing quite enough imagination there, do you? A mainstream French socialist? A Latin America leftist? Please. America is far too exceptional for such small bore men on white horses. He should think much, much bigger than that.

Presser notes Greene is, however, worried enough:

This past April, at the Milken Conference, the annual confab hosted by the felon turned philanthropist, Greene sat on a lunchtime panel with Charles Murray, the author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, and historian Niall Ferguson, whose recent book could have been called the same thing. “Do you see this?” Greene asked the audience, pointing to a slide that showed the widening income gap. The crowd, whose members had paid the $6,000 entry fee to get investing tips, not guilt trips, made restless noises. Then there was a smattering of impressed applause, followed by uneasy laughter. Greene blinked, surprised. “People look at Occupy Wall Street as, this is just a little kind of a disorganized joke,” he said, raising his voice. “If we take another 10 percent of middle-class America’s income, who knows what kind of other social unrest could happen in this country and the changes that could happen to our way of life?”

Digby:

He wonders why so many of the polloi back Republicans and thinks that’s bound to change once they wise up and figure out who the real enemy is. And I wonder why he is so sure that will go the way he thinks it will. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that the vastly wealthy are starting to notice that their greed and avarice might result in an unstable society. They’re not the brightest bulbs on the planet but they do catch on eventually.

Maybe someone learned something from the French, even if the one person cannot convince his smug buddies.

Bernard Finel adds this:

Why is it, exactly, that the plutocrats think they can indefinitely fuck with the rest of us?

Greene is getting at one dynamic… some sort electoral revolt. But what is worth noting is that traditionally it wasn’t just fear of electoral defeat that encouraged the super-rich (or aristocrats previously) to make concessions, it was also the fear of mobs armed with pitchforks.

Throughout the 19th century, many progressive social changes occurred in the context of looming violence. Indeed, fear of the “the Revolution” was the driving dynamic behind much of the politics of progressive policy in Europe, and certainly it was a similar fear that brought many wealthy to accept the improvements in work conditions and ultimately social insurance here.

Indeed, I was reading a book on San Francisco from the 1950s to 1970s – Season of the Witch – and it was a reminder about how much left(ish) violence there was even at the time. It wasn’t that concessions were won at the point of a gun, but rather that a certain amount of fringe violence reminded the wealthy that there were limits they had to acknowledge.

You don’t need a revolution, just the real possibility of one. An historical tour of Paris might help, and Finel has something to say to that woman who screamed out that Obama wants to take her money and give it to do-nothing ANIMALS:

Keep it up lady. Keep it up, and sooner or later, holding onto your money is going to be the least of your problems.

Just to be clear, I’m not encouraging or condoning violence. I’m just saying that a healthy respect for the potential of violence in society would be a useful constraint on the sort of slash and burn politics being pushed by today’s right.

Ron Beasley adds this – “FDR’s New Deal was supported and in fact designed by the very rich because they feared the same thing a revolution or at the very least a disruption.”

That didn’t happen in France. King Louis and Marie Antoinette didn’t have Jeff Greene come out to Versailles and give his PowerPoint presentation – there was no Jeff Greene at the time. The poor may be starving, but they can always eat cake. Marie Antoinette may not have actually said that – it was not cake but brioche, cheap at the time, and she meant well. It didn’t matter.

So up there on the big screen, or on your flat-panel at home, Bogart says those words – “We’ll always have Paris.” It works wonderfully in the movie. Variations of the same sentiment work wonderfully in many movies. But things change. Some now hear those words and think of the fall of the guillotine, over and over. That’s Paris too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in France and America, Income Inequality, Revolution in the Air, The Uses of History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to French Lessons

  1. David Donavel says:

    Dickens, of course, did not condone the revolution. Visit the chapter entitled “The Grindstone” for a vision of hell. Nor did he take issue with income inequality. He did, however, see real dangers in arrogance and greed and it is these that lead to the uprising he so deplores in his novel. See his chapter “Monseigneur in Town” for a poster boy for those defects of character. As I recall, the Monseigneur is the first to get his comeuppance. His answer to the social difficulties he decries in his Tale, is compassion, which is, perhaps, another name for “quite tory-ism.” So it’s worrisome that the right, day after day, becomes increasingly hardened, more and more determined to continue to shift wealth into their own pockets. It’s hard to see how this will play out.

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