#103. Pepe le Moko (1937)

While I was in the English program at Florida International University between 2009 and 2013 the department was emphasizing what they called “literature of exile” — probably mainly because the student body (myself included) is predominantly Hispanic, and the Hispanic part of the student body (myself included) is predominantly Cuban, and exile is a pretty big part of the Cuban identity in Miami. But they were also appreciating the work of Eastern Europeans, and of Egyptians, and I think there was even a text from a North Korean defector, James Joyce, Dante Alighieri; the civil war in Syria was reaching a fever pitch with Assad’s gas attacks on civilians and so we got some stories from there as well. And it was interesting to see, in surveying the global literature on the topic, that the condition of exile, of pining for one’s home, is pretty much universal. Pepe le Moko gave me a bit of a flashback to it.

Pepe, played by Jean Gabin, is a handsome, dapper, charismatic criminal, French by blood, who lives now, exiled, in Algeria. He takes as his home here a casbah — a blocky terrain of stacked and tightly-clustered structures, laced together with winding staircases and cobblestone alleys. Residents can just as easily get around by hopping rooftops as by walking the alleys.

The cops want to catch Pepe, round up his crew on a litany of charges, and Pepe, of course, wants to go about his business, trading in stolen jewels and running the crime world, but his criminal activity seems mostly like a pastime. What he wants is to be home, in Paris, and when he meets with a beautiful young Parisian, Gaby (Mireille Balin), who’s clad in enough jewels to compromise the lighting, Pepe finds, at last, somebody with whom he can rhapsodize about home. “If I can’t wake up in Paris,” she tells him, “I want to go back to sleep.” Pepe’s eyes swim with emotion, a confluence of desires and urges, and when he dances with her, leans in and whispers things, it’s hard to tell if what he’s pining for is her beauty or her jewels or if maybe this familiar foreigner is just the closest thing he’ll get to home.

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The casbah

The movie has its own story, concerning betrayal within Pepe’s crew and a strange relationship with a certain cop, but it seems to be a meditation on longing. Pepe longs for the home he can never reach and his girlfriend, played by a stunningly beautiful actress whose name I can’t find online, manifests her own longing with a face as nuanced in its emotion as any of the Silent Era’s greats. She wants for Pepe to be with her, emotionally, to not be so dedicated to just distracting himself from the pains of exile. She wants him to open his heart to the idea of a new life, here, with her. But Pepe is defined by his exile. It motivates a pretty drastic course of action at the film’s end. That vibe of alienation, of being someplace other than where you ought to be, is something I’ve been feeling in spades lately, as the holidays take their course. Friends are coming back to town, reaching out to get drinks, and my normally-quiet, ascetic, solitary daily life, devoted to movies and essays and reading, is turned into a string of potlucks, and drinks with old friends. It’s a good time, but it does kinda throw my clock off. And everybody’s the same as when we last got together, however long ago, but they’re different too. Circumstances are different. Almost everybody’s out on their own, working; seems like another one’s married each year. And I just feel weird, in light of other people’s progress, to be doing what I’m doing. The movie thing. That feeling of weirdness was especialy strong when I went to a wine and cheese thing at a friend’s apartment downtown like four days before Christmas. She’s a lawyer now, we met in college, and we have as nice a time together as we ever did when we were students. But her guests, ten or so, were all lawyers. Except for one guy, a lawyer’s fiance — he’s an engineer. And here I am on the fringe of their legal talk, occasionally getting piteous invites into the conversation: “And what do you do?”

pepe pic 1
If somebody knows this actress’s name, please tell me!

I start by telling them I work in a tutoring center and eventually, as like a hit-or-miss effort to sound more interesting, I mention the Thousand Movie Project, the essays and the screenings, and they ask which movie is the best and sometimes they’ll ask what I’m hoping to get out of it. I suck at answering both. (I should really rehearse an answer, since I get this question almost daily.) It’s a bummer. They get back to normal conversation and much as I try to contribute, every thread of conversation I pursue ends up winding itself back toward movies. This thing I just learned about Brando, or John Ford, or Ridley Scott. And who gives a fuck? Nobody, almost. They wanna get back to talking about life, work, the world. Which is totally understandable — it’s just that there’s this discord now. Whereas we were once all bonded by the fact that we were in the same high school, or the same college, we’re all pursuing different things now, interested in different things, and there’s a vibe, with out friendship, like it’s estranged, or exiled, from that place where it began. Or maybe like the friendship is itself the place, and we, as adults, are exiled.

Even with close friends who like movies just fine. I end up feeling like I’m exhausting everybody’s interest and/or patience by belching out trivia and opinions that constantly digress from the topic at hand.

But it’s fine. The holidays are I think just too jarringly social and so they tend to throw me off. I’ll be at home but there’s so much going on — work is in recess and my phone’s blowing up with calls and texts and emails — that it doesn’t feel like home. led me to think that home, for me, is more about circumstances than place.

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