Paris Plage, Bombay Beach and the American dream
I’d seen a small oil painting in an upmarket interior design shop on the Boulevard St. Germain. The painting was beautifully lit and took as its subject the river Seine and the cathedral of Notre Dame. It was a pretty painting and I decided that I’d paint something similar.
A day or two later after criss-crossing the bridges of the Seine I settled on the scene that I was going to paint: it was view of the Pont Royal looking east from the Pont du Louvre. I even did some sketches for the painting. It was winter: the skies were uniformly leaden and the waters of the Seine were, disappointingly, the colour of cold mud. So, I began to think of the different colours that the river takes on in the different seasons: of how it can be ice-blue and silver in spring, emerald or jade green in high summer. And I thought of the month of July when the quays of the Seine – in the heart of Paris – are transformed into something called ‘Paris Plage’: tons of sand are brought into the city and an artificial beach is created – along with flags and striped deckchairs and all sorts of things that are found at the seaside. And because minds have a life of their own, mine took off – and travelled further east until my thoughts came to rest at Bombay Beach.
Bombay Beach isn’t a beach in India but a place on the edge of a huge lake in California. The lake was formed ages ago by the Colorado river and Bombay Beach was once a holiday resort that attracted thousands of affluent Americans. It’s now a place for escapees and misfits and the kind of people that do not figure in the world of the promised land. The only reason I know about Bombay Beach is because the film-maker Alma Harel made a documentary film about it. I’d seen the film on television: it had something to do with the American dream because it’s supposed to be exactly the place where the American dream ran out of credit and came to a full stop.
Ever since I’d seen the film I’ve wondered about the American dream. The thing is, I don’t really now what the American dream actually is. I don’t know what its constituent parts are. I don’t know what its point is or who gets to have the dream. And even if people do have the dream who is to say that it is THE American dream?
In fact, I’m wondering if anyone in America actually has the standard American dream. I suppose it’s a dream about riches and glamour and freedom. Perhaps it’s a dream about ‘being somebody’ – about being a person of some consequence.
Still, the media people must have a clear idea of the dream because they wanted all of us to know that the Bombay Beach in California is not it.