PRINT March 2010


IF YOU SEE MALCOLM MCLAREN’S new video piece, Paris: Capital of the XXIst Century, you’ll be telling people about it the next day. Like this:

Malcolm McLaren, Paris: Capital of the XXIst Century, 2010, still from a color video transferred from archival footage, 58 minutes. Chapter 3,  “Parodie Parapluies de Cherbourg” (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Parody).

A TALL, NERDY-LOOKING GUY with big, dark-rimmed glasses—sort of a French Buddy Holly—walks into an airy, well-lit Paris boutique. It seems to have just opened; in the background, there’s a painter on a ladder. The salesman, an Alfred Molina type in a purple sweater, smiles: “Vous désirez?” Light romantic music comes up; the customer executes a jaunty balletic step as if he’s been waiting all day for the chance to do just that and begins to sing about how he wants a gift to surprise his wife. The salesman sings back that he has just the thing—“My wife’s trying it right now”and holds up a roll of toilet paper. He places it on a countertop so the man can examine it; the man picks it up, dancing backward and singing, holding the roll to his mouth like a microphone. As the camera pulls back, you notice that all the shelves in the place are filled with rolls of toilet paper—white, taupe, pastels of yellow, green, blue, orange—and now the salesman is pulling hard on a sheet of toilet paper to show how strong it is. This is a toilet-paper boutique. That’s all they sell. Through a glass pane in the door, you might glimpse a young couple walking by on the street; the ordinariness of their presence brings into relief the irreducible weirdness of what’s going on in the shop.

THERE’S A CUT to a display of toilet-paper packages—“Le Trèfle Parfumé Une Nouvelle Collection”—and a comforting, authoritative male voice-over telling you how wonderful this is. That settles that, it would appear—and just like that, we’re in a darker, much tonier boutique. Vous désirez? a saleswoman with a bright nimbus of blond hair and huge, glowing eyes says to a well-dressed, middle-aged, serious-faced woman who is fingering the scarf on an otherwise nude mannequin. The saleswoman has several colors of toilet paper to show her, unrolling them like bolts of fabric. The customer holds a green roll to her mouth: “Elegant,” she says, or maybe it’s “Et le vert?” She unrolls another sample in front of a mirror, caressing her breast with fingers entwined in the toilet paper. Another display shot: “Le Trèfle aux quatre parfums.” All right, you think, that was odd—and then harsh, percussive flamenco music comes on the sound track, as if to say, Now we’ll tell you what’s really going on. We’re back in the first boutique, the action speeded up, no more dialogue; there are abstract swirling lines, a cut to female flamenco dancers below the waist, their skirts flashing, the noise more intense—and as we return to the women’s boutique you think, in your rational consumer’s mind, Yes, with something this intimate, even in France, there must be separate toilet-paper shops. As the serious-faced woman again brings her wrapped fingers to her breast you might catch a bearded, middle-aged man walking slowly down the street outside, his head down, a picture of dejection. The scenes repeat, with the breaks as established before, but now the footage is slowed, doubling back, stuttering, reversed, so that the man hands a roll back to the clerk as if, Thank you, it was a pleasure, do you have another I might try? But now the clerk’s stretching of the paper as his response to anything has taken on a tinge of threat. The saleswoman’s eyes seem to grow in her face, her unblinking stare saying Yes! Yes! Yes! in a manner even scarier than the salesman’s. The salesman glides beautifully from behind his counter as his customer purses his lips in disbelief that any product could be so fine, so perfect, then dances himself, matching the pace of the salesman, so slowly and lightly, but in a manner not quite human, like a synchronized swimmer underwater. The woman with the roll in her hand is now barely moving, as if under someone else’s spell, gliding toward the stillness that transcends all stillness. The flamenco dancers’ shoes are pounding. The saleswoman watches her customer, her face now plainly that of an alien. The salesman and his customer continue their pas de deux.

This is only one of twenty-one segments in a work composed of footage from an archive McLaren found nearly twenty years ago in Paris—a treasure chest that opened almost by accident. In McLaren’s remakes of what he found—advertisements redrawn through repetition, panning, pastiche, collage, digital manipulation, musical scores both congruent and disruptive, McLaren voice-overs that combine the seductive and the insufferable in a single breath—this segment isn’t even the most delirious.

IN 1991, THE SEX PISTOLS and the galvanic remakes of Madame Butterfly on McLaren’s album Fans were in the past. Few had noticed McLaren’s paltry album Waltz Darling in 1989 or his deeply felt BBC film The Ghosts of Oxford Street in 1991 (with Tom Jones as a singing version of the great entrepreneur and embezzler Gordon Selfridge). Now McLaren was in Paris to make his album about the city, with Françoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Gréco if he could get her. “One night, sitting with friends in the brasserie Wepler,” McLaren explained when I asked where the toilet-paper people came from, “I couldn’t help complaining about the difficulties and horrors of working with divas. Suddenly, I was interrupted by a stranger sitting nearby. He introduced himself as a film editor and collector of old films made by artists that, if interested, I might like to see.” They went back to his studio: “I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of piles and piles of tin cans full of short reels of 35-mm film. They were for the most part commercials, made for French cinema”—to be shown in movie theaters before the feature—“dating back to the very beginnings of cinema itself” (including a clip by the Lumière brothers, “the first ad ever,” of a naked woman, seen in silhouette, “holding up majestically, with both hands, strands of spaghetti”). The man was thrilled to find an audience; McLaren was thrilled to discover commercials the collector told him were made by Max Ernst and Jean-Luc Godard. Then he put it out of his mind and finished his 1994 album, Paris—from which some of the music and narration in the video work are taken.

From top: Chapter 5, “La Rupture” (The Breakup). Chapter 13, “Le Peintre” (The Painter).

LAST YEAR, thinking about a new project, McLaren remembered the archive; he retraced his steps and found the right building. The man’s daughter had taken over the collection and transferred all the old film to digital.

Imagine, then, a series of commercials coming at you like a flock of birds arriving out of nowhere and from every direction. There is so much going on in the segment “Chemin de Paris”—which starts in and as a commercial for the Samaritaine department store and then, with countless characters, dances, songs, frolics, dresses, and cigarettes across a five-minute montage of footage from perhaps a dozen different ads, turns the whole of Paris into a single department store—that it informs everything that follows. You feel as if it has opened a door into a city where there are no secrets, where everything is on sale and on display, where nothing can be as meaningless as it seems; a city that generates its own swirl, the song of the commodity sung with such ardor that an ad by Ernst for Etablissements Levitan scored to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” can come off as garden-variety Surrealism by comparison and (except for Juliet Berto) an ad by Godard for Schick aftershave as an ad by anyone else.

PARIS IS FULL of McLaren’s talk about streets and the flaneur, and of intertitles musing about banality and profundity (“Nowhere else does one find so many tasteless things as in Paris. That is precisely the secret why it is still the place where the inspiration of art lives on”); it is charged with hints of rebellion against or negation of consumerist tyranny. The last is brought out most coolly in McLaren’s détournement of a commercial showing a secretary being felt up by her boss as, on her electric typewriter, McLaren inserts the tale of a woman who once responded to a policeman’s accusation that she had just urinated in public by pulling up her skirt and pissing in the street, thereby proving she couldn’t have already done so. But McLaren’s whole project is made in a spirit of play, and what one is most likely to take away from it is a sense of madness as a form of fun.

ONE PIECE IS PERHAPS at the center of the work. There’s a fanfare on a call-to-hounds bugle; a man wakes up, mouths “Boursin,” and comes alive. Shouting “Du Boursin!” he rushes from room to room as if he hid his cheese the night before but can’t remember where. He finds the kitchen, the refrigerator: of course! He opens the door and there it is, three round packages, and a pipe organ sounds: deliverance. He spreads the cheese on bread, takes a bite, and smiles at us. It’s the simplest little ad in the world.

Then immediately it plays again, seemingly without a single change. Then again, and there’s a kind of glow on a door. Then again, with that trumpeting fanfare, and a bedside lamp you didn’t notice before is unnaturally bright, a hallway is flooded with metallic light, a door is blinding, and the man doesn’t notice, he’s on his quest, nothing will stop him, he jerks open the refrigerator door, and there behind the Boursin is the brightest light of all, all but radioactive, and as he spreads the cheese on the bread, you think, He’s got to taste the difference. Then the fanfare again—“No! No!” people shouted at one screening I attended. “Make it stop!” “Yes,” said a person at another. “Take it further”—and the apartment is losing definition, with light overwhelming its features, even taking over the man’s face. On the table, except for a few ridges in the rind, the cheese itself is a single ball of light, like whatever it is that’s in the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly. Then again, and you try to follow the action with the sun of the piece in your eyes, and you think, This has to be it.

And then one more time—and here, in this drama of erased images, you realize what this really is: the pursuit of the absolute as a game of charades, and a dare, the director’s dare to the viewer, himself, and his material most of all. What if he’d lost his nerve? What if he hadn’t gone all the way?

Except for the vaguest specters of movement, the screen is completely white. There are no images. The man has been devoured by the commodity—and because without a consumer there can be no commodity, the commodity has devoured itself.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.