Paris Blues

Paris Blues

Notes: The movie Paris Blues, black and white, 1961, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman as Ram Bowen and Sidney Poitier as Eddie Cook, with Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward as tourist Lillian Corning and Diahann Carroll as her friend Connie Lampson. Louis Armstrong’s ample ambassadorial grin has a small part.

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Paul Newman, as Ram Bowen, with trombone. What a beautiful man!
Paul Newman, as Ram Bowen, with trombone. What a beautiful man!

It’s the early sixties: before heroin,
before herpes and AIDS ruined things,
before the women’s movement.
Jack Kerouac is still alive, though only just,
with eight years left to live. But
let’s leave America behind and take
a cultural detour down to the cellar
where a successful American export,
a jazz band, is winding up for the night.
The hero is a nice guy: short back and sides,
casually dressed in slacks and a neatly pressed
polo shirt. You’d like him. He plays a trombone.
A trombone? But first
we see a city at dawn: a man wearing a beret
idling along the cobbled street on a pushbike
then a girl wearing a scarf and carrying
one of those long loaves of bread
in her basket, bought at a local bakery!
It must be Hollywood: and it is! Though
with a French savoir-faire and a touch of
je ne sais quoi. As we get used to the silky
black and white, and the smooth lighting, we realise
we have been drawn into one of those indoor-
outdoor binary universes: when the action happens
indoors, the lighting is perfect, a studio in Burbank, say,
where even in the phoney park the light is just right.
But in the “real” outdoors it’s windy and overcast
and the lighting is kind of muddy and
the passers-by look suspicious and distracted,
so it must be Paris, or a version of it.

Yes, in a dive in Paris the hep cats are jumping,
jiving like it was the forties, when in fact
rock’n’roll has come and gone, JFK
is President, and the Ford Edsel is old hat.
Then we see the hero’s name: Ram Bowen.
Can they be serious? A name like that,
and Paul Newman with a trombone? Well, this is
a Paris of the mind, where ordinary suffering humanity
get to be pushed around by a bad script, so
anything can happen. The hero’s buddy is a black guy,
but he’s played by Sidney Poitier and wears
a suit and tie and a wristwatch and a short haircut,
so he’s all right — however deeply touched by
the madness of art — that is, jazz entertainment.

Paris Blues movie poster, color.
Paris Blues movie poster, color.

Then two women arrive on holiday:
one white, divorced, with two kids back home,
and the other black and single. So we have
four Americans in Paris but with angst
instead of fun: these jazz dudes may be polite
and press their shirts, but poor Ram:
his struggle with the demon of art and all those
late nights make him despondent.

So through the sets of matched doubles
day after day the Jane Austen problem
keeps rearing its ugly head: ladies,
how do you catch your man, when he’s
a wild free spirit who suffers for his art?

Of course there’s a resentful older woman
with a French accent: we see her checking the till
in the cellar at daybreak when the crowds have gone,
and cooking, but she keeps to the shadows,
nursing her hurt beauty behind a veil of makeup.

We get a clue as to why Ram is a musician,
not a writer: Paris is picaresque, he says.
His new girl friend Lillian misses this,
or maybe gets it and neglects to correct him,
shaking her blonde hair, straightening her gloves,
waving her handbag at the expensive scenery,
thinking — perhaps — that picaresque is French
for picturesque, and not wanting to
put the kibosh on a blossoming affair:
the guy’s Paul Newman in mufti, after all.

Sidney Poiter's character with "Connie"... a tense moment... will he accept the proffered rose?
Sidney Poiter’s character with “Connie”… a tense moment… will he accept the proffered rose?

Meanwhile Sidney Poitier has a tormented talk
with his dusky lady friend Connie: color,
the question of color, that he can avoid in Paris.
Should he go back to New York and face it?
The color problem that brave Americans are
painfully working through, white and black alike,
maybe it’s his duty: she says it’s his duty
until his teeth ache, but then she says
she wants to have dozens of children.
What’s a guy supposed to think?

Paris Blues, DVD cover.
Paris Blues, DVD cover.

 

Ram wakes up late from the hangover of music.
He and Lillian have long talks about how
art eats you up, and we note that Ram
wears his wristwatch to bed, no doubt needing to time
what happens between those pressed white sheets.
As dawn breaks over tourist-flavoured Paris
he yawns and rises, his hair perfectly combed.

Ram wakes: wristwatch... 4 a.m. or 4 p.m.? hair combed... don't seem natural, to me...
Ram wakes: wristwatch… 4 a.m. or 4 p.m.? hair combed… don’t seem natural, to me…

How can you tell if a man’s art is authentic?
Why, opines the lady, it’s the way he made me feel.
She speaks to him of Ram Bowen in the third person,
and addresses his dimple, which broods in silence.
Honey, he insists, I live music, morning
noon and night! Meanwhile her outfits
are astonishing: one beautiful coat after another,
scarves, gloves, hats: the product of resourceful
shopping as wide-ranging, committed and passionate
as Ram’s devotion to his trombone.

Yes, Ram is hitched to his mournful trombone
and we have the feeling that one day
he’ll find himself alone with the thing,
an old couple who don’t much like each other.

“We are the night people!” the nicely-dressed
black man exclaims on the tourist boat,
“and it’s a whole different world!” Sidney
is hinting at a kind of underground where
moral values are reversed, where being cool
is better than being prosperous and where art
has usurped Mammon’s place on the altar.
Then he checks his watch and adjusts his tie
and the illusion breaks up into ripples.
He’s a type, not a person, a vacant role
waiting to be imitated and filled in,
a cool black dude with the race problem
and a stern girl friend to worry about.

They play some music as an interlude
from the dialogue, though for Ram
we know that this view is back to front.
Now why is that saxophone playing second fiddle
to a trombone? Have you ever seen a band
with a dominant trombone? [Note 1] Is it because
Paul is more handsome than Sidney?
Taller? More white, let’s say? Then
we are asked to believe that Louis Armstrong,
America’s ambassador of cultural goodwill,
is some great giant of modern jazz, oh please,
gimme a break, he was briefly avant-garde
before the Great Depression, long ago,
and the furious God of Bop has long since
consigned him to the dustbin of history
and the lounge rooms of the middle class.

Louis Armstrong, Paul Newman, Paris, 1960
Louis Armstrong, Paul Newman, Paris, 1960

Now Ram’s pal the coke fiend is snorting heavily —
it’s his way, he says. Well, he’s a French Gypsy,
not a regular guy. Now Ram makes him
see his future in the figure of an old friend
ruined by drugs, busking on the street,
drooling and plunking on a tuneless guitar.
Gypsy, see a doctor, Ram says earnestly,
suddenly the concerned bourgeois. Then
more tourist epiphanies — shopping and kissing —
and as Ram hugs his blonde under an umbrella
an abashed camera coyly looks down
at his slacks and highly-polished casual shoes.

In this cloudy autumn weather they
cast no shadows, like devils, and chez nous
read the Herald Tribune just to keep in touch.
In the corner, a television set. [2] This movie
might well appear there, titled The Tender Trap. [3]
Sidney goes crazy with love and buys
more flowers than he can afford.

Then Ram meets a powerful agent
who knows everything — Ram is good,
but his music is not good enough,
says the wise man. That’s an opinion,
but not a life plan. What to do? Being moody,
that’s not suffering, you have to be a bastard
like Rimbaud. He used to keep lice in his hair
so he could flick them at passing priests, and
for a while there he was a sodomite — 
no blondes for him — and when he got moody
he killed a man by throwing a rock at him.
And in the end he tore up his talent
and left all that art shit behind. So, Ram,
marry the blonde or the junk or the trombone,
just quit pissing around, will you?

Paris Blues, movie poster, black and white.
Paris Blues, movie poster, black and white.

 

At last Lillian comes to rest in her hotel room,
exhausted by her efforts to persuade a dumb guy
to marry her, in a wilderness of dishevelled suitcases
and loose shopping. Then he turns up, then
he has an attack of gloom and abandons her.

Oh, Ram! You and the script writer both
seem to have lost your grip at the climax:
a more authentic person has taken over
and inhabited this blonde like a virus and
as the train for Le Havre chugs out of the station
in a cloud of steam I realise that Lillian
is smarter and more fun than Ram, and maybe
she’s better off alone on the boat train heading
back to New York and her two kids, where Frank O’Hara
has just finished his poem ‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’
on the Staten Island ferry on his way to a reading
in a snowstorm, and some other different and
more interesting movie is about to begin.

Notes:

[1]   dominant trombone] Of course there’s Kid Ory, Miff Mole, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Charlie Green, Curtis Fuller, Bob Brookmeyer and many, many others.

[2]  television set] The movie was filmed in Paris in 1960, and released in 1961. In 1960 there were over one million television set active in France, and 52 million sets active in the USA. In 1960, a television set in France cost about fifteen week’s average wages; in today’s money (2015) that would amount to over nine thousand US dollars. A jazz trombone player owns a television set worth over nine thousand dollars? Are you kidding? This movie is far more American than you thought! Back in sunny Sydney, I was still renting a black-and-white television as late as 1973, because I couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

[3]   “The Tender Trap”] is a popular song, and a 1955 movie directed by Charles Walters, and starring Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, David Wayne and Celeste Holm. Story: Charlie Reader is a successful theater agent. He is also successful with young ladies. One day he is visited by his old friend Joe, married with three children. Joe falls in love with Charlie’s girl Sylvia while Charlie spends his time with young actress Julie. The idea is that women only want to trap a man into marriage, using sex and tender “love” to do so. Yeah, like a fish needs a bicycle. Uh huh. Lyrics, finale: “And all at once it seems so nice,/ The folks are throwin’ shoes and rice./ You hurry to a spot/ that’s just a dot/ on the map./ And then you wonder how it all came about,/
It’s too late now, there’s no gettin’ out -/ You fell in love, and love is the tender trap.”
Songwriters: J. VAN HEUSEN, S. CAHN / Tender Trap lyrics © BARTON MUSIC CORPORATION

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