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Thursday, June 17, 2021

A comic quest to film a Jewish Séance at a real Paris theater

Few cities seem to embody the age of the minority quite like Paris. Just after New York’s Amusement Parks and Arts Festival, I make the hour and a half trip from Morningside Heights to the Loew’s State Theater in Faubourg de Bercy.

The theater is still in the same creaky condition in which it was built in 1908: old, heavy, white oak seats marked only by bland tags on their backs. Saws and drill presses bring out resounding metal cracks. Without a single regular screening, the place feels a bit dingy.

After an hour of screening gay-themed films from the 1970s, a middle-aged couple, smoking cigarettes inside and talking about how much better the monochrome than the original blacks and whites, begin the Séance. On cue, suddenly, the theater fills with pink light, swirling water and a circle of skittering characters with long, spindly fingers. And I’m completely alone in the room, so the prospect of an unlikely transfixing Séance — aka a silly conversation between two moronic Parisians — has me convinced it’s just about to come to pass. But then the crazed, paranoid crowd changes to white, with the same general actors moving through the room, talking about everything from the excitement of the moon landing to the need for Brazil’s eternal appeal to superstitious Zoroastrians. Now I’m the only one who knows what’s real. Who are these people? What the hell is going on? “Then do it,” an elderly lady inside the circle whispers, but instead of feeling a touch of adrenaline or disorientation, it’s like being drugged. At the end, the talk is completely unchanged: about an Asian lad with a big head who died after being caught masturbating by soldiers while they were off to war in France, or about AIDS and our state of denial. The audience nods in tacit agreement, but are none of them really listening?

The next time I visit the theater, the rain prevents me from bringing the camera. It’s a little like the American Museum of Natural History’s turtle in the lap room. And like the museum itself, the theater doesn’t know much about itself.

–Laura Cappelle, photojournalist

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