I suppose to really know Samuel H. you first have to know boulevard Soult in the 12th arrondissement. Part of the inner ring that circles Paris, it is a no man’s land between the city and its eastern suburbs. One day, walking along the boulevard, I noticed a small poster announcing a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. I hadn’t seen the silent masterpiece so I was excited, and looked over the poster searching for the venue. I couldn’t find it. I’d see more of these posters, always frustrated that there was no precise information. I noticed hand-marked scrawls over them. The work of some crank, I concluded.
I later saw similar posters for The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show on Earth, both directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston. Posters with a political message followed. There were condemnations of intolerance, bringing to mind the poster of the Griffith film, making me think there was an underlying moral, as well as method, to the madness. I’d wondered who the person who put up the posters was, and kept an eye out for him (or her).
I never spotted the artist in action, yet posters would appear constantly. The material took on a collage-like character, bits and pieces taken from magazines, newspapers and other sources. There was a hint to the artist’s identity: scrawls in black marker proclaiming Samuel H. de Paris. But who was he?
The artist’s motif of tolerance took on special poignancy a couple of years back. At one end of the boulevard, a Jewish deli was targeted in the terrorist spree whose most famous victims were the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I wondered if such a horrible event would result in the outsider collagist sinking into mournful silence. But the pasted images and texts proliferated even more. There was no stopping Samuel H.
But the question remained: who was he? I proceeded by elimination. It wasn’t the neighbourhood vet. Not the proprietor of the shop specialising in baseball equipment. Not the Eastern European couple who looked after half a dozen buildings in the quartier.
There was another ‘suspect’ hiding in plain sight: an elderly Jew I sometimes saw sweeping in front of a building and picking up litter. I thought he was the caretaker of the building, but realised his sweeping was his own personal endeavour. I once caught him holding a little poster, perhaps about to paste it to a wall; but he was conversing with another local at the time.
Days later came positive proof: one of the collages included what was unmistakably his photo as a younger man. I had my collagist.
A few weeks later, I finally saw him at work and plucked up the courage to say hello. He didn’t answer. It seems he thought I was going to harass him about his collage work; which was often torn down by neighbourhood Grinches. When I said I’d seen him put up his pictures, he answered curtly: “It’s not forbidden.”
“I always wondered…” I chanced; and it opened the floodgates. Samuel H. began speaking about his life and times – and about movies. He’d had several professions, including at the Paris Opera as a child, playing bit parts. But his passion was the family business, the Cinéma Rexy in Saint-Mandé. The art house showed movies for decades, until the city took over the space. The cinema catered to a mixed crowd, hundreds attending screenings, especially of large-scale epic movies. His hero was DeMille, from whom he got an autograph.
Samuel did his military service in the Corps Cinématographique. In Algeria, he moonlighted at local cinemas for pleasure or profit, to the consternation of army brass. It cost him a shaved head once and, another time, a month in stir (where he and his cellmates talked about movies). His fondest memory is helping a cinema in an Algerian city put on The Ten Commandments. In the audience were Muslims, Jews, French soldiers, FLN guerrillas, OAS terrorists – at peace. I wondered if it was the notion of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” on that stone tablet that accounted for it.
“Mais non, they just wanted to see Charlton Heston part the Red Sea!” They eventually took away Samuel’s beloved movie theatre. The times did away with the old epics. However, there will always be those images and words preserved on paper and celluloid, the raw material of his own work. The collages of Samuel H. de Paris cover entire walls for public edification, with a cast of thousands.
From France Today magazine