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[VIDEO] Paris: The Luminous Years

Produced by Thirteen for WNET.org, the Eloquent Image LLC, INA and ARTE France in association with YLE Teema. Written, directed and produced by Perry Miller Adato; Margaret Smilow, executive producer; Junko Tsunashima and Kristin Lovejoy, producers; Kris Liem, editor.

New York Times review from December 14, 2010

Alessandra Stanley writes: Paris isn’t what it once was.

And neither is PBS.

And for that reason alone, “Paris the Luminous Years” is as illuminating about the state of public television as it is about Paris at the dawn of modernism. This film, which has its premiere on PBS on Wednesday, looks at the city that seduced the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Apollinaire, Diaghilev and of course, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. It pays homage, though, not in the seditious, inventive spirit of the avant-garde that Paris once nurtured, but in the time-tested, didactic and dutiful tone of a typical PBS documentary.

Paris is still a wonderful city, but it no longer draws the world’s most innovative artists and thinkers. PBS is still a serious, responsible institution that shows good work, but creativity and élan have migrated to other networks and cable channels.

The 1923 passport of Ernest Hemingway, among those discussed in “Paris the Luminous Years” on PBS.Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The 1923 passport of Ernest Hemingway, among those discussed in “Paris the Luminous Years” on PBS.Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

There was a time when everything new and fresh and different seemed to spring from PBS: it is where Americans fell in love with Julia Child and Sir Kenneth Clark and Big Bird and “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “The Forsyte Saga” and so much Shakespeare, ballet and opera. “Frontline” was bold, and Bill Moyers and William F. Buckley Jr. seemed daringly provocative. In 1969, when “Sesame Street” began preaching equality and social justice along with the number 5 and the letter E, that series seemed downright radical.

Talent, energy and viewers have since been siphoned by nimbler networks like HBO, BBC America, even MTV. And corporate donations and government financing can lead to constraint and self-censorship — particularly when public television comes under fire from conservative leaders. It’s small wonder that PBS is not bold, daring and provocative.

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Neither is “Paris the Luminous Years.” The documentary, a Thirteen co-production directed by Perry Miller Adato, is almost two hours long, and it is thorough, instructive and for the most part beautifully illustrated, particularly with slides of Fauvist paintings, set designs from the Ballets Russes and clips of old black-and-white interviews with the likes of Chagall, Jean Cocteau and Janet Flanner.

Modernism is so rich it speaks for itself, but the film doesn’t actually have much to say.

The guiding conceit is that from 1905 to 1930, Paris was the mecca of leading artists from all over Europe, Russia and the United States. “Why did Paris become the chosen destination for so many?” the narrator asks. “Why Paris?”

“Paris Through the Window,” a 1913 work by Marc Chagall. Courtesy of C 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

“Paris Through the Window,” a 1913 work by Marc Chagall. Courtesy of C 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

The answer, it turns out, isn’t very complicated: location, location, location.

Picasso and his ilk settled in Montmartre because it was cheap and had already been broken in by luminaries like Renoir and van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. A bohemian community sprang up. Most of them later moved to Montparnasse so they could hang out together in cafes. “They lived in hotel rooms, maybe tiny apartments — unheated, cold,” Noël Riley Fitch, a biographer of expatriates in Paris, explains. “For a cup of coffee they could sit in a cafe and they had heat, a toilet, all the necessities for writing or for sketching.”

Basically, the Lost Generation found itself in an early version of Starbucks. … (read more)

Source: The New York Times

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