The major problem with travel guides is that they tend to cater for the majority. This is fine, if you want to admire great cathedrals, go round art galleries, or do the usual sort of things that tourists do. I’d rather not. My holidays usually revolve around spending heady amounts of cash on things you can’t get at home, usually in the sort of urban jungle a sensible traveller would avoid. This strikes me as totally logical, but information on the best places to buy video tapes isn’t something you’ll find in most books. Thus, we present the first in a sporadic (depends when I go on holiday!) series:
Boat/train, London Victoria-Newhaven-Dieppe-Paris. A five-day return is £55 and takes about ten hours. There are two advantages to this route: firstly it’s the only one that runs overnight, allowing you to save money on accommodation, and secondly, you get back into Newhaven at 5 a.m, at which time there are unlikely to be enormous swarms of Customs officers roaming around.
Paris is better off than London in this respect; here you’d be hard pushed to find a hotel in Zone 1 for less than 30 quid per night, but in Paris, a double room can set you back about 130 Fr, about fifteen pounds. While this will not get you the Ritz, admittedly, who cares? Last time, I stayed in a hotel near the Sacre Couer, in what could either be described as (poetically) South Montmarte or (accurately) Pigalle.
The staff were astonishingly laid-back; we registered and asked about payment, expecting to have to pay cash in advance. “Oh, pay when you leave”, they said with much shrugging. This worried us so much that the next morning I insisted on paying – but the request for a receipt was waved off, which worried me even more. When we left, I fully expected to be met with sawn-off shotguns and asked for all our money. Sadly, at least for this article, nothing happened at all, but the area is good for finding cheap hotels, at least if you can cope with one that feels like something out of ‘Taxi Driver’.
Food ‘n’ Drink:
French cuisine is famous all over the world. However, the TC traveller will probably be more concerned with cost, having spent all his money on videos and comics. Supermarkets are good sources of junk food; rolls, a hunk of brie, some bottles of beer, and you’re ready to re-enact “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (nekkid babe optional). We’re even slowly managing to convince our Continental cousins of the immense gastronomic opportunity provided by the potato crisp – previously only available in “plain” and (of all flavours) “paprika”, you now have a chance of tracking down more acceptable kinds. Of the food available on the streets, the best is an interesting delicacy called “merguez frites” – a split baguette containing a double spiced sausage, with a cart-load of chips shovelled on top. At about £1.50, it’s scarcely budget-breaking and it is entirely possible to subsist for an entire weekend on nothing else, though readers should consult their doctors first… [You can also get decent doner kebabs in the Pigalle area though, as here, quality varies!]
As you might expect in France, pub hours are lengthy, and are good places to pass an evening. Just don’t actually drink anything. The prices, even outside the centre, are extremely high, a fiver for half a litre is not untypical. The solution: visit the supermarket again and buy ’em by the crate. Drink these before going out of an evening, and then you’ll be better equipped to imitate the French technique of lingering all evening over the same drink, instead of the British, “get them down and get them in” approach. French beer isn’t generally brilliant – they seem to have devoted most of their energy to wine – but there are any number of more than acceptable imports from Belgium and Germany.
The French are keen on films. There are many tiny cinemas, which wouldn’t have a chance of surviving here, living off the fact that the French will watch anything. [The reason is rather a “social” one than a “national” one, relating to the areas in which these cinemas are located. Many of the people who live in these areas are unemployed and will watch anything to pass the time] I visited one such place, three quid got me in for a double bill. The cinema was a very run-down affair, which made the Scala look like a brand-new multiplex; never mind holding your bags tightly, I kept counting my limbs, and hoping I’d get past three. But I eventually relaxed; the crowd was overall more attentive than most you’d get here, though they may have been just drunk or asleep.
While that place was unquestionably very tacky, I enjoyed the experience, so was talked into visiting a porno cinema. Real bad move. Difficult to say exactly why, maybe it was just that everyone seemed to be taking the films so seriously, and intensely. Laughter – my first reaction to 95% of such movies – was not a viable option. After 30 minutes of staring fixedly ahead, not even wanting to contemplate what the noises coming from behind me were, I cut and ran, literally. It was a sobering experience, but perhaps proof that my sense of proportion is still intact.
I still feel a great sense of guilt about insisting that Jim come to a Parisian porno cinema with me. I should have known better, having visited the same dubious establishment with friends a couple of years before, while even more drunk. Being more inebriated on that occasion, and having had the strength of safety-in-numbers had probably blinded me to the cinema’s truly sordid nature. However, the cinema did seem to have gotten sleazier, so at the end of the day, I am really only partly culpable! If anybody fancies experiencing a genuinely disturbing porno cinema, it’s the Atlas, located on the Place du Pigalle.
French censorship laws are certainly laxer than here, with both ‘Hard Target’ and ‘Betty Blue’ rated “12”. Contrary to what people like David Alton might think, I did not notice cross-bow wielding Beatrice Dalle lookalikes stalking the streets (more’s the pity!). Truly vicious stuff like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ get a “16” cert, while only hard-core is rated “18”. The major problem cinema-going in Paris is thus not censorship, but trying to work out what’s on. Film titles in France may be the same as the English title, a literal translation of the English title, something that isn’t really a translation, but is close enough to point you in the right direction ( ‘Man Hunt’ = ‘Hard Target’), or a phrase that bears no resemblance at all to the English language title. Who’d guess that ‘Murder in an English Garden’ was ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’?
You can check all the necessary details in one of the listing magazines. All of these are excellent: a quarter the price of ‘Time Out’ without the perpetually whining liberal sensibilities or ‘Gay’ section. If you want a specific recommendation, a court recently convicted one such guide, ‘Pariscope’, of using massage parlour ads as a front for prostitution. It’s 80-year-old director was fined £22,000 for serving as a pimping intermediary, while the head of the “Beauty and Relaxation” section(!) and the guide’s publisher were fined £5,500. I need not, I imagine, say any more.
Generally, the sleazier cinemas in Paris should be approached with a degree of caution. But if you can handle just a mild sleaziness, then there are some real gems on offer in a couple of screens in the city: the Agora, on the Boulevard de Clichy (the main sex street in Pigalle) and Le Brady on the Boulevard de Strasbourg. This pair of cinemas, in two of Paris’ most run-down areas, show two different double bills on a permanent basis every week – one from Sunday to Tuesday, the other from Wednesday to Saturday.
The Agora unfortunately doesn’t advertise its programs in Pariscope, so basically you have to go there to find out what’s on. Generally, this place shows a lot of 1970’s/80’s action movies, especially Chinese kung-fu films from the 70’s, but sometimes some obscure exploitation movies too, among them ‘The Virgin of Nuremburg’ (a 1963 film starring Christopher Lee, directed by Antonio Margerhiti), ‘Caligula – the Untold Story’, ‘Street Trash’ and other classics.
The better of the two from my experience has been Le Brady, which tends to offer more consistent programming of cult/sleaze exploitation movies. Here I had the ‘good fortune’ (depending on your perspective) of catching such terrible classics as ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’, ‘Zombie Holocaust’ and an obscure Joe D’Amato movie ‘The Forbidden Loves of a Nun’. The prints are mostly uncut, though often quite worn because they come cheap to these little cinemas. Other features that have turned up here include some Godzilla (in the shape of “Son of Godzilla”), plus Paul Naschy and other European horror pics from the 70’s, although much of the time they screen movies that are just plain shite. [even by our, usually tolerant, standards.
Whether a fan of gruesome movies or not, the fascinating thing is watching this kind of material on the big screen with an unsuspecting audience. It’s like stepping off the street into the 70’s, with an audience ignorant of the exploitation going on, absorbed in anything they are shown by the cinema proprietor, regardless of its age. It’s especially fascinating watching a movie like Deodato’s “Last Cannibal World” in its complete form, from the front row of a cinema auditorium, with a real live crocodile getting chopped up and Me-Me Lay having hot rocks put into her stomach just a couple of metres in front of your nose. And not even a groan of disgust from the spectators (or even a cheer – the probable response if it had been shown at a place like the Scala.
However, it’s also worth keeping your wits about you in cinemas like these, primarily because the audiences consist of some of Paris’ greatest sleazoids. I’ve had no real trouble at either of the above venues (though one friend [not me!] claimed to have received advances from an old bloke in the toilets, which I can believe – keep reading). But experiences at a similar venue (which has since closed down), a couple of years ago, have led me to be prepared for the worst. We hit a double bill of a 70’s kung-fu film and a Chuck Norris picture, loaded with bottles of beer. What we discovered were the locals masturbating in the toilets, at the urinals. I guess it wouldn’t come as a shock in a porno theatre (hell, that’s the most normal behaviour at the Atlas), but it came as somewhat unexpected. Indeed, truly baffling, given the nature of the films, leading me to conclude that there is an aspect to old Chuck’s popularity that most people aren’t aware of].
Typically, the French stubbornly opt for their own unique video standard, SECAM – contrary sods or what? – which gives a b&w picture on a British VCR. For best results, they need converted – or you can always stick to buying black-and-white movies… Price-wise, sell-through tapes are more expensive, 149 Fr. being a common price, and not much in Virgin on the Champs Elysees sells for less than 120.
However, you can do better, especially with genre stuff. There are discount stores; notably Mega-Video at 18-20 Boulevard St.Denis, which sell a number of good movies for 50 Fr, about six pounds. [Since writing, it has reduced its amount of stock a great deal. Two other shops are located at the top of the Rue Faubourg St. Denis (one has a marvellous upstairs room), but generally quite a few of the electrical shops in here or near Pigalle have a selection of cheap tapes] HK films are well represented, though beware – of three films on the Kara label, one box had the wrong film in it, and another tape was blank. But it is nice that even kung-fu films got the widescreen treatment, which is far more common in France. Laser-discs are also more plentiful than over here; Ondes (31 Rue Greuze) has the biggest selection I came across.
Speaking of coming across films, on the “dodgy” side, the same applies in France as anywhere else; if your tastes are normal, avoid sex shops like the plague. It’s possible to pick up 80 minutes of heterosexual fun for 39 Fr, though this may be clips from other films, so the plot might not make much sense. I doubt anyone is bothered. Of course, if you’re after, er, more specialised stuff i.e. ‘Teeny Pissy’ (I wish this was a misprint, believe me), you’ll have to head either to Pigalle, or to the infamous Rue St.Denis. Not to be confused with the aforementioned Rue Faubourg St.Denis, the Rue St Denis illustrates the cool, laid-back attitude the French possess; it’s difficult to visualise any other city where you can stop a random stranger, ask “Ou sont les prostituees?” and receive perfect directions without so much as a raised eyebrow.
If you can put up with the fact that 99% of releases are dubbed into French, you can pick up some decent video-tapes in France. While French dubbing is actually very good as dubbing goes, if you don’t understand French, hermeneutic problems might present themselves. Fortunately, there is no censorship of French video releases nowadays, so most films are in their complete versions. However, be prepared for quality to vary – some might be beautiful, sharp, widescreen versions, others might be grainy reduced prints.
There also seems to be no legislation regarding titles and packaging. French distributors have a tendency to retitle exploitation pics in order to fool people into buying further copies of the same film. It’s not unusual to find a company with the same film released at the same time under two different titles and sets of packaging, or even a release that is incorrectly titled, incorrectly illustrated, and – when you resort to the synopsis to identify the film – fails to deliver one on the dubious grounds that the story is so terrifying that it’d be irresponsible to provide a synopsis on the sleeve, for fear of distressing any shoppers. Really, it can be a hard life for the video collector in France…
Another area where the French are well ahead of us is in the field of comics, or “bandes dessines” as they’re called. Artists such as Mobius are far better known in France than their British compatriots are here and comics are read by a much wider audience. Almost any bookstore will have a decent BD section, though be warned that “bookshop” in French is, confusingly, “librairie” – attempts to borrow their books will not be viewed kindly…
Having said this, the attitude to browsing seems a great deal more relaxed, and any BD store will reveal it is seemingly okay to stand and read the books for as long as you want. And “books” they are; traditional comics, of roughly A5 size and with a floppy cover, are almost unknown; BD are generally A4, hardback and glossy, with hardback prices of perhaps a fiver per forty-page volume – if you’ve seen ‘Asterix’, you’ll know the sort of publication I’m talking about. The FNAC store in Les Halles has one of the largest selections, the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees is open late, and the Librairie Glenat on the Boulevard St.Germain is the best of the specialist shops, with a lot of original artwork and so on. I’ll admit a knowledge of French is helpful, but it’s a far more interesting way to learn the language than school ever managed. The cool points gained by having them on your shelves are considerable, as there is a lot more than Gaullish freedom fighters to the medium.
Should be no problem, especially if you’ve taken the advice in the first paragraph. The major advantage of France is that, unlike Holland, Customs Officers will only really be looking for people taking in alcohol for resale (an epidemic problem, especially in the South of England). Anyone travelling on foot is unlikely to be able to carry that sort of volume.
A few general points remain valid. Customs look suspiciously at single travellers, so if you are one, overcome your traditional British reserve and try and link up, even if only for the 100 yard dash off the ship. A school party is excellent – especially if you can get one of the little dears to carry your bag. Or you can go the other way, and offer to help with some aged grandmother’s cases. Here is also the chance to practice your method acting. You are not a devotee of trash culture returning from a shopping spree; you are a geology student coming back from a week’s climbing in the Jura Mountains. But if you do this, remember to dress the part, whatever the part is. If your rucksack is covered in patches from a selection of Britain’s national parks, you’ve a better chance than if you attempt to stagger through in an ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ T-shirt. Pleasant shopping!
Finally, while in Paris, also worth popping into is Movies 2000 (49 Rue de La Rouchefoucault, south from the Place de Pigalle), a store managed by Didier Allouch, contributor to the French magazine ‘Mad Movies’. They stock various posters, tapes and other memorabilia. Fortunately, he speaks good English so you won’t have any problem communicating what you’re after. Happy Trails…