Thursday, September 20, 2007

Society of the Perforated Mexicans

I had an amazing experience recently, where I read two different parts in my friend Jayne's play, during its first public reading. It took place in the "cave" or basement of a former convent here in Paris called “Les R├ęcollets," which has been completely restored and is used by the French government as a cultural reception center. In other words, if you are an artist, scientist or intellectual, studying or working on a project, you can apply for temporary housing in this building.

The cave was full of Jayne's well-wishers, probably 30-40 people, and was only lit by candles. It was romantic, but a bit challenging for me and my fellow readers (about 10 other actors) to read a script that we had only seen and practiced once, 4 hours prior to the reading.

The reading was a great success, and everyone stayed for a long time afterward, discussing the nuances of the play and having some delicious cheese and wine by candlelight. I was chatting with one of my fellow actors as we looked down a long hallway off of the main cellar room. It intrigued me to peer down there and wonder how the nuns made use of those subterranean tunnels. (You can imagine what bubbled up in my filthy mind.) That's when the subject of the Paris catacombs came up and my friend told me the story about The Society of the Perforated Mexicans. There are many true stories and myths about the mysterious Paris tunnels, but this one is the best so far.

Evidently, in 2004, the Paris police stumbled upon a complete underground movie theater. First, they encountered an office, with a desk and a working telephone. Dogs barked upon their entry, but they figured out it was just a recording. Then they moved into a huge room with a complete movie theater, restaurant, and bar. The cops left the place for two days (what were they thinking?), and when they returned, everything was gone, the phone line cut and dangling, and one note was on the desk, signed by The Society of The Perforated Mexicans, which said, "Don't try to find us."

The group finally revealed itself in this Guardian UK article. Here are a few excerpts:

There are, at most, 15 of them. Their ages range from 19 to 42, their professions from nurse to window dresser, mason to film director. And in a cave beneath the streets of Paris, they built a subterranean cinema whose discovery this week sent the city's police into a frenzy.

"They freaked out completely," Lazar, their spokesman, said happily. "They called in the bomb squad, the sniffer dogs, army security, the anti-terrorist squad, the serious crimes unit. They said it was skinheads or subversives. They got it on to national TV news. They hadn't a clue."


With their long experience of such matters, the group's technicians had little difficulty piping in electricity and phone lines. "The biggest hassle was that everything - tables, chairs, bar, projector, screen, the lot - had to fit through a 30cm by 40cm hole on the surface," Lazar said. "When the police finally worked out where we were getting in, they couldn't believe it was the right place. It was so small."

What the article didn't cover, was the meaning behind the name, Perforated Mexicans. When I first heard the name, it reminded me of the perforated paper decorations so famous in Mexico during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations. It's the art of papel picado (perforated paper), which is used mostly for holidays in Mexico, with perforated paper panels hanging from a string. The most common images are skulls and skeletons doing real-life things like riding horses, dancing, and playing music.

If you are a skeleton, living underground in the Paris catacombs, then I imagine you would be perforated, just like the paper, because everyone can see right through you.

Here are some other online references to The Perforated Mexicans:
  • Drew McWeeny of the film "Cigarette Burns" was interviewed here and said that he tried to incorporate the whole idea of the Perforated Mexicans into his script but in the end, his budget didn't support building an underground Paris catacomb set and he had to cut that out of the film
  • The film Glitterati, a film directed by Roger Avery, was screened in Paris on New Years Eve 2006 only for The Perforated Mexicans. The film was referred to by Avery himself as "ethically questionable" since most of the characters in the film didn't know they were being filmed. Therefore, he did not plan to release it to theaters or on DVD.
Paris catacomb image: Viktor Hartmann, Paris Catacombs. People pictured are Hartmann, Vasily Kenel, and a guide holding the lantern. Watercolor 12.9 x 17 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Papel picado image: Courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art


Thembi Ford said...

Great research! I heard bits and pieces of this story when I was living in Paris but didn't even believe it. When I went to the Catacombs I was under the ridiculous impression that there would be some protection between myself and 'them bonez' (how American of me), but when I saw what it was really about I ran though to the end like my life depended on it.

Bonez said...

What a great post, Lisa! I really liked the virtual tour through the catacombs with all Them Bonez pictures. A nod to thembi for the pun idea :) But because of this post I plan on visiting these wonderful tunnels during one of my upcoming European trips. Thanks!

Lisa Wines said...

Thembi - that is so funny! Here's what's funnier - I haven't been down there yet. After writing this, I guess I better get my butt in gear. We'll see if I get creeped out too.

Tony - I shall put the catacombs on your tour itinerary, along with some amazing restaurants. Come on over!

Anonymous said...

Thats spooky, I love it!

Glendell-The Art Master said...

Now that was some entertaining writing. Some Scotland Yard-Jack,the Ripper type of sh*t. I really enjoyed that. You took me right down in them darn tunnels - I was scared as a mutherf...Thanks I loved the story. Next time I'll have my popcorn.

Lisa Wines said...

Thanks 80sstyle and glendell-the art master. :-) Now that I've taken everybody on the ride, I suppose I should go down there and check them out me self. :-) I hope to bring you more of the corpuscular underpinnings of the gay Paree.