Magazine article Artforum International

Sale of the Century

Magazine article Artforum International

Sale of the Century

Article excerpt

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:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 desirez?" 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--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 Trefle Parfume 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 desirez?" 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 Trefle 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. …

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