Known for his work as actor and director, Pierre Baronsky-Huang, was considered a member of the B-Ville group in part for his competitive relationship with the videomaker Geneviève de Parnier, but also for his groundbreaking new minimalism in contemporary theater.
The Paris native had early promise as an actor, starring in Wozzeck at the Gambetta Theater, and creating such a powerful effect when he killed his girlfriend that twice members of the audience called for the police who removed him in handcuffs even when the young actress resurrected herself, and her parents swore in front of a judge it was the same girl.
While he had some success in the theater, film credits from those years list him as understudy for Cop Number 2 and Manservant Number 3. Critic Andres Gauvin once mused, “Perhaps if he’d been handsome, he’d have been a leading man and he would have pursued a different path. We’d never had understood the walk-on at all.”
He certainly wasn’t handsome. In his few interviews, Baronsky mocked his narrow chest, shrunken nose, and, “Tiny chin like a baguette end somebody’s thrown in the street and the rats have gnawed at.”
Eventually, he borrowed money from an uncle in Normandy, and lit out for Hollywood. Auditioning under a pseudonym, hoping to change his luck along with his name, he reportedly found all the studio doors closed against him, though a few remarked on his peculiar luminous quality.
After his return, he refused to speak about the trip and retreated into a dusty atelier on rue de la Villette where he practiced the lost art of typewriter repair, and occasionally displayed his work in the local galleries. He didn’t turn on the radio, watch TV or appear there, until that Indonesian trip when, during a particularly deadly typhoon, he made his way from the wreckage of the hotel in the dark, climbed to the top of that rock with a couple others, and emerged dripping and alive just when Minerva Schoenheiser, then a shoestring documentary filmmaker, pointed the camera his way.
Schoenheiser and her crew were removed from the disaster area by the National Guard when they realized she was filming the only record of the tragically mismanaged scene, but she managed to hide her files. She almost cut him in the editing room, wondering at the aptness of showing a smiling man in the midst of such tragic loss, but she had no choice. “How often are you on the spot for something like that?” She recalled. “Later, I was actually grateful. It made the film. Water curling around the bodies, then this man appearing in the frame, looking face forward into the camera like it was a home movie, and giving it a winning smile. I made it a commentary on the West. Our callousness in the face of disaster. Obliviousness to the global south. When I got nominated for the Oscar, I had to find him.”
It wasn’t hard. There were only twelve Europeans in the hotel that month. She took a journalist, photographer and her own camera. “Let me shake your hand.” Surrounded by the broken bits of x’s and a’s and #’s she awoke in him his old desire to be onstage. He didn’t sleep for a week. He forgot to eat and his chest withered even more than it had.
He went down to the Notre Dame and according to his own memoir, when he saw a tourist aim “that eye, that fat camera mouth” at the cathedral he walked through the shot, tilting his head slightly towards the camera and giving it the best angle for his face. He became the man off to the side with the elusive Mona Lisa smile. Thousands took him home. For some reason, the light of the photos was always better when he was there, that stranger with the thin face and stringy hair.
Baronsky-Huang began attending free lectures for adults at the Sorbonne. He’d arrive late, walk down the aisle to the front, cut across the stage, giving the audience his profile, then settle in to listen to the lecture. One he remembered was the influences of Blaise Cendrars on contemporary French poetry. He began to be remarked. Not favorably. Doors would be locked five minutes after class was due to start, and he had to come in early with the others, but then he would cough uncontrollably, and rattle candy papers until someone shushed him. The professor warned everyone to unwrap their throat lozenges before class, and he spent hours developing a realistic sneeze that everyone knew came in groups of prime numbers, sometimes singly, sometimes in threes or fives or sevens. He’d have at it until someone said “Bless you,” or another muttered, “Asshole.”
Those were early days when he was just beginning to see himself as the direct descendant of Antonin Artaud, prodding the audience into wakefulness with his little, considered acts of cruelty, then holding their interested or just annoyed glance, with his peculiar light.
He frequented film websites, and began to post small articles about his work, “Anonymity and the Popular Cinema” “Photography and the Unknown: Passing Through” “The Stage and the Classroom.”
In March, a woman arrived, a competitor. She arrived in her riding boots and Jacqueline Kennedy headscarf that covered a bee hive as ostentatious as any he’d ever seen. She did nothing at all, yet attracted every eye when she pulled off her thick brown sunglasses and batted eyelashes that extended an inch or two from her eyes.
If her gestures were large, they were precise and silent. The book she opened exactly to the required page. The pen she scratched silently across the paper glittered with gold. Her lipstick, meanwhile, was a thick smear extending her lips well beyond their natural boundaries into the disputed area under her nose. Before class, she would pull out a mirror, and like a cartographer, refresh the borders of her protruding flesh.
The class watched her, but the professor, too, would pause sometimes in mid-sentence to watch her eyes open and close with that net of lashes hanging from them. She pursed her lips when the teacher observed that the trend for young poets to get themselves blown up in wars, either entirely or just their left hands, didn’t originate with Cendrars, but had been seen in Spanish literature as far back as Cervantes. At that she released the prisoners of her lips with a faint smacking sound that stunned the crowd into excited murmurs.
Her tour de force went on for weeks. Paper rattling and sneezes were for amateurs. Baronsky-Huang was forced to consider the specter of failure, a return to what was left of his atelier, the meager grants that protected his work. It was too much. He went to the tabac, bared his heart to the bartender and began his famous journey.
He skipped class to spend a week in the rain, and developed a hacking cough. He encouraged his phlegm, fed it with milk and cheese, which rattled loosely in his narrow tortured chest where it burned for months. This time, he attempted to suppress his cough. When he went to class, he brought his lozenges already unwrapped and popped them in his throat, which worked for a while, just enhancing the bright spots of color in his cheeks. Sweat would gather on his brow, a white pale line circled around his mouth throwing his red, red lips into stark relief. And the poetry out there reached inside him then flowed back out again through his nostrils in green and yellow streams, trickling from his ears, his eyes crusted with sentiment that he brushed away as unobtrusively as possible.
He did not want to go to class, but felt he should, knowing his haunches seemed to fill more than one seat. One empty chair counted in a seminar like that. It would be noticed he felt, and the inspiration he felt the professor took from speaking around his coughs and sneezes and rattling paper would dissipate in perfect silence.
In “The Soul in My Eyes,” the only aspect of his life he claimed to regret was that last day, when he crossed over from bit player to Center Stage, “making,” he wrote bitterly, “a spectacle of myself.” The doctors called it something else, double pneumonia with a particularly high fever. When he collapsed in class, he was hallucinating, and ranting.
Minerva Schoenheiser recognized him when students posted cellphone videos of the incident on YouTube, visited him in the ICU to offer him a character role in a feature film, but he turned her down flat. “I thought you’d be pleased,” she said. “Don’t you need the work?”
He just smiled, giving birth to his reputation, though he finally agreed to accept a non-speaking role. A report of the deal reached the theater editor at Pygmalion online who crowned him the first real genius of the new millennium, even before Baronsky-Huang was nominated for an Oscar.
Following his example, actors began to reconsider the smaller roles, competing increasingly fiercely, refusing to add lines, and negotiating for weeks over a mumbled “yes” or “no,” and walking off the set until lines like “There, to the right,” were reduced to a simple pointing finger.