Saturday, December 11, 2010

When Paris was Paris: The Luminous Years

They listened to jazz, haunted cafes, and revolutionized art, music, and literature. In the early Twentieth Century, a remarkable creative vanguard collected in Paris. Something of a trailblazing cultural documentarian in her own right, writer-director-producer Perry Miller Adato profiles the diverse cast of cultural icons whose collaborations and rivalries produced what we now term “modernism” in Paris the Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern (trailer here), which premieres on most PBS stations this coming Wednesday.

According to Luminous, the future began in 1905 when Matisse made his first sale (to Gertrude Stein). Yet, it was the 1907 Cézanne retrospective that propelled close friends and fellow painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso to develop Cubism (as it is now referred) on their canvasses, sending shockwaves through the art world. A few years later, The Rite of Spring caused a legitimate riot at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Though Stravinsky’s dissonant music is often singled out for scorn (or credit), Nijinsky’s choreography was nearly as avant-garde.

Soon, the Americans arrived, including Ernest Hemingway and Josephine Baker. Ironically, one academic asserts Langston Hughes likely discovered jazz, the music that would shape and inform his greatest poems, while working as a busboy in a Parisian jazz club.

While Adato thoroughly covers all these big epochal moments in the birth of modernism, Luminous is best at making connections between artists and disciplines. Poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau befriended artists like Picasso and Chagall. Artists like Miró and de Chirico designed sets for the Ballet Russes. Within disciplines, innovative classical composers like Mihaud and Satie incorporated American jazz into their compositions.

Unlike customary practice for many documentaries, Adato avoids gratuitous use of celebrities as talking heads or narrators. No offense is intended to Concetta Tomei (best known as the dead mother in Providence), whose voice-over work is clear and pleasant, yet happily never distracts from the ample illustrations of the art under discussion. While eschewing big names, Luminous’s on-camera academic commentary is all completely on-point and rather informative.

Luminous is the sort of programming PBS always claims to produce when its federal funding is in jeopardy, but is all too rare on its schedule. It really is all about fine art, music, and literature, with only the briefest of political commentary mixed in (but even that was unnecessary). Smartly written and well produced cultural history on film, Luminous airs on most PBS outlets this Wednesday (12/15) and will be available on DVD the day before.