Thursday, August 8, 2013

Can you, Can You Do the Cancan?

 Form Moulin Rouge!, the 2001 Australian-American musical film directed, produced, and co-written by Baz Luhrmann.

click here to see video

          Maybe it was in the same spirit of doing what the French do Twain showed at the Paris Morgue that he went to see the cancan.  Or maybe he just wanted to watch dancing girls perform the most scandalous routine of their day.  In that, he would certainly not have been alone.  Whatever his motivation, he describes his night out at the cancan in one of the best-known scenes of The Innocents Abroad
     He and some Quaker City companions prevail upon Billfinger aka Ferguson to get train tickets for a short ride out to Asnieres, a suburb north of Paris.  There, at what we'd now call an adult venue, an American from New York has opened a bal to compete with the famous  Jardin Mabille, a nineteenth-century dance spot popular with regular folks rather than aristocrats.  "We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life...and...we went to a similar place of entertainment," Twain writes.
     In short, Twain goes clubbing.
     Turns out he's not very good at it.  As much as he might want to enjoy himself, his sense of propriety gets in his way--which seems odd for a guy in his early 30s who has spent his adult years so far as a gold miner, steamship pilot, and newspaper reporter.  Yet where does he put the blame?  On the French, of course.
       At the train station, Twain and friends climb into a car with "a perfect jam of people." "Some of the women and young girls...we knew to be of the demimonde," he writes, adding cryptically that "others we were not so sure about."  Still, they all "behaved themselves modestly and becomingly,"  he says.  Once in Asnieres, they pay for admission to a beautiful garden with snaking paths along lawns, flower beds,  and rows of ornamental shrubs.  Twain even spies some private corners--"secluded bowers"--that he calls "convenient for eating ice cream."  I have to wonder what other activities those secret spots were convenient for, but never mind.  Twain doesn't say or even hint.
     They join a group that walks past a temple and a mansion lit up by gas jets bursting around them.  Twain is duly impressed.  "It nearly took my breath away," he writes.  Then things start to get a bit risque, a hint of what's to come.  He describes "crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages...frisking about the garden... and the temple, drinking wine and coffee or smoking."   There's a memorable performance by the famous tightrope artist Blondin, after which the cancan finally begins back in the saloon. 

     What follows is not Twain's most sophisticated moment, to say the least.  But that may have been his intent--to present another, shocked side of the homespun persona he creates for his audience back home.  Still, he sounds more like an embarrassed teenager than a world traveler:
     The music struck up, and then--I placed my hands before my face for very shame.  But I looked through my fingers...A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet  the opposite gentleman, tripped back again, grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick. 
     What strikes me so funny about this scene, and what I find so charmingly adolescent, or do I mean American, is the image of Twain peeking between his fingers.  He doesn't want to look, or, more to the point, he thinks he shouldn't want to look, but he can't resist so he tries to have it both ways.  He looks but doesn't look at the same time.  
     And, as much as what he sees appalls him, I have to say he describes it vigorously if not admiringly: "That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman, and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. " But the real kicker comes when he raises his own heel at French morals:
    Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of [my words].  There were a good many such people present.  I suppose French morality is not of that straight-laced description which is shocked at trifles.
  .....Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air,  and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub and a wild stampede!  Heavens!
     In his parting shot, he even compares the cancan dancers to "the devil and the witches at their orgies" in Robert Burns's poem, Tam O'Shanter.  

      This scene, as far as I can tell, is Twain's first expression of disapproval of French sexual mores.  But it is a subject to which he will return again and again when he engages in France-bashing.  Just why a little lewdness should bother a man who's worked on the river, at mining camps, and on newpapers remains, as I've said, a mystery. What is clear, though, is that Twain wants to draw a clear line between what Americans think is okay in terms of sexual behavior and what the French do.  Once again, whatever else we are, we are not French.
     In this way, too, I'd say Twain heralds American attitudes toward the French.  If he doesn't exactly invent the stereotype of them as promiscuous, hypersexed creatures, he certainly goes a long way toward establishing it.   In his view, Americans are at least ashamed of their libidos, while the French are only shameless about theirs. For the man who would become the greatest American icon of his day, that proved unforgivable. 

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