Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Paris Noise, and the Marais

Movies set in Paris typically take many liberties with their portrayal of the city, just as they do with any of the other great cities of the world. One of the things that directors remove from any location shot in Paris (and other densely populated cities as well, I presume) is noise.

Paris is a noisy city. It's fabulously photogenic, no doubt about that, and it's a great place to live in a great many ways. But one thing that is almost constantly present in Paris is noise, and almost all of it comes from motor vehicles.

As a longtime resident of Paris, I don't really notice the noise. In fact, the street outside my apartment is noisy practically all the time, except in the wee hours of the morning. When you walk down any major street in Paris, the traffic noise is often so loud that it's hard to hear a person next to you talking, and you both instinctively raise your voices. But when people make movies of Paris, all this noise is stripped out. Skilled foley artists replace the real noise with the kind of sound that people would expect in romantic movies about Paris, and/or they overlay it with music, and of course dialogue.

The difference can be striking. I specifically remember a very poorly edited scene in the old teeny-bopper film La Boum, a very successful French movie set in Paris. In the scene, a man on the street says to the people around him “Moi, je monte!” (“I'm going up!"), meaning that he's going to go up to an apartment where a party is being held. Up to the point where he starts to speak, there's virtually no ambient noise, except for some unrealistic footstep sounds added in post-production. But as he speaks, the original sound recorded during the shot is used for the man's dialog—and you can hear tons of traffic noise in the background. Then, as soon as he closes his mouth, it's silent again, except for the footsteps, courtesy of the foley artists (sound effects editor).

I saw the movie when I was very young, and I had not been to Paris, and the contrast in sound struck me as odd. Today, though, living in Paris, there's nothing surprising about it (although the editing could have been done better). There is a constant, perpetual, eternally irritating noise of traffic just about everywhere in Paris, and it's very hard to escape. You get used to it in person, but when you record something—like the modest videos I've been making the past few days—the noise seems overwhelming in the video. In fact, in videos I've been making, you can often hear the clicking of excess noise on the videos (digital recording makes clicking noises when sounds are too loud, as opposed to the distortions you used to hear on old analog recordings).

What can I do? I'm not sure. I'm rather chary of narrating the videos myself, as I cannot stand the sound of my voice. I can remove the original sound, but then there is only silence. Putting music over it would require paying royalties (YouTube provides a music dubbing service, but it comes with many restrictions). I tend to ignore the noise, as it's familiar and I ignore it in real life, but in some cases the screeching and honking and ear-splitting noise of scooters distracts from the visuals. Sometimes I'm just amazed by the sheer loudness of this noise when I play back videos during editing or viewing.

Anyway … these past few days have been unseasonably warm and very clear and cloudless. The only problem is that this causes pollution alerts, reaching levels of 8 or so (on a scale of 10, with 10 being the worst). Not a good time to go for walks, and yet the weather otherwise beckons, so if one has the time it's hard to resist the temptation to walk around a bit.

I've finished my editing of another short video showing some of the Marais, a very trendy district of Paris known for its shops, restaurants, expensive apartments, and high concentration of homosexual residents, as well as its small but important Jewish quarter, in the rue des Rosiers. Marais means marsh, but the Marais hasn't been marshland for eight hundred years.

I filmed the place des Vosges, a large and beautiful, 400-year-old square that has been very chichi and expensive ever since King Henri IV built it in 1605. On nice days, it's really popular. On nice days, you see how densely populated the city is, because everyone goes outside. I did this video on a Sunday, and the streets were literally shoulder to shoulder with people in much of the Marais (as you can see by watching the video, hint-hint). The rue des Francs Bourgeois, one of the main streets through the district, is just one huge mass of people. Any cars attempting to get through on a day like this will need half an hour or more to travel one mile—they're better off braving the heavy traffic on the major avenues instead.

Inside the Marais is the rue des Rosiers, a street with a large and conservative Jewish population. I like the street because it's filled with places to eat, including L'As du Fallafel, which makes a fabulous vegetarian falafel (a kind of sandwich made from a hollow piece of bread stuffed with veggies) for five euro. There was a huge, huge line in front of the place today, so I gave up on buying a falafel, even though I craved one. Falafel actually refers to the veggie fritters inside the sandwich, but most people use it for the entire sandwich.

That's not the only place that gives one the munchies on this street. Korcarz is a place that has all kinds of meals and deserts. They make a great cheese and lox sandwich, and delicious strudel. Just walking down this street makes me gain weight.

Anyway, I filmed that street, and by then it was getting dark, so I didn't do the rest of the Marais. Someday I'll make a proper film of this district. My videos right now are kind of haphazard; I have a lot of crises demanding my attention and it's hard to concentrate. Walking helps to relieve stress a little.

I'm still annoyed by double vision, especially at a distance. It's perplexing. My eyes move in all directions without a problem, so it doesn't seem like any nerve palsy or anything like that. Sometimes they snap into alignment abruptly, but at other times they stubbornly refuse to align on an object. Just one more thing to worry about. Oddly enough, it doesn't have too many practical effects, apart from a loss of depth perception, but it's just really irritating.

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