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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 12 DECEMBER 2010Paris, the Luminous Years, to be shown on PBS television across the United States as of 15 December (check local listings), is a first-rate documentary film on the ‘City of Light’. Perry Miller Adato’s love for Paris shines out not only in her thoughtful  exploration of the role played by the French city in the creation of the arts during the early twentieth century (1905 -1930), but also in her portrayal of the city of today. Supported by excellent archival footage, she lets the artists themselves tell the story of Paris as the magnet which drew together all the greatest talents of the time in music, painting, sculpture, dance and literature. The film concentrates on an international group, which includes Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Josephine Baker, Marcel Duchamp, Aaron Copland, Langston Hughes, Vaslav Nijinsky, Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein, among many others.

The French capital provided unique access to courageous art dealers who bought and dared to show the work of the avant-garde painters and sculptors, and interviews with such delightful artists as Marc Chagall are interspersed with throw-away comments, informing the viewer that Juan Gris was a draft dodger in Spain.  On a more serious level, Miller has dealt intelligently with both the Dada and the Cubist movement, the former being a rebellious upsurge of rage against the war, born in a Swiss cabaret, which few of us actually understand.  It was, it is pointed out, the "absurdity of an imbecilic war" which gave people like Francis Picabia and Max Ernst the right to break all rules and to attack all art, past and present.

Marc Chagall: Paris Through the Window, 1913
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The Cubist movement is dealt with more gently, with "Mr. Braque, a daring young man, reducing everything to little cubes…. and hammering out cubism in an upstairs room with Picasso".

A significant part of the documentary covers the story of Serge Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who brought a season of Russian opera and dance to the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1909. It led to the formation of "Les Ballets Russes" the following year, which was subsequently regarded as the most inspired and revolutionary dance company in the world. Many of their works were created and premiered in Paris, and the collaboration between some of the leading composers and artists of the day has never yet been equaled.  "Astonish me", was a favourite phrase of Diaghilev, and astonish him, along with the rest of mankind, is what Igor Stravinsky did with his violent Rite of Spring, the like of which had never been heard before. It was a score which paved the way for modern music, and as Perry Miller points out, this could only have happened in the international, fervent atmosphere of Paris. Not only was Stravinsky composing for the Ballets Russes, but also Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and Milhaud, to name but a few, while the Russian’s costume and set designers included people like Bakst, Picasso, Benois, Roerich, de Chirico, Matisse, Gris, Miro, Golovine, Braque, Utrillo, and Derain, most of whom are in the film.

In an interview, Aaron Copland, one of the most important figures in developing distinctively American music in ballet scores, where he incorporated American folk-songs and cowboy tunes as well as traditional hymns, speaks of his arrival in the French capital at the age of 20. "Anyone who was serious about composing had to come to Paris to study," he insisted.

Perry Miller Adato has also found interesting footage of interviews as well as never-seen-before photographs of such literary genius as Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway, the latter declaring that he found the America he wanted to write about in Paris. Paris, it seemed, nurtured, stimulated and sustained young writers and poets while in the U.S., they said, they were socially and culturally repressed. Even after the war, finding their homeland censorious, they returned to France, which gave them the air they needed to breathe, and so write.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport (detail)
Ernest Hemingway Collection,
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

They got published here and had a public who wanted to read the latest avant-garde novels. Paris, they said, "opened them up to their own identities". "If I had not come to Paris, I would not be who I am", is the message these artists are telling us, one of the themes of the documentary being that if one succeeded in Paris, doors were opened elsewhere. Not least, the film’s many beautiful, non-clichéd and non-touristy shots of the city point out just how lovely, sophisticated and elegant it was and still is. To use that age-old quote, "Paris will always be Paris!" One could only regret the somewhat abrupt ending after two hours of fascinating viewing.

For those without access to PBS television stations, or who reside outside the United States, the full programme will stream after the broadcast premiere at Paris The Luminous Years is also available on DVD through PBS Home Video.

Paris The Luminous Years  will air on PBS television nationwide on Wednesday, 15 December 2010 from 9 – 11 p.m. (ET).

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance and fine art in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Madame Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

Headline photo: Pablo Picasso in the workshop of Pablo Gargallo, 1913
Musee Picasso, Paris, France
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Travel Calendar Tip: London

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909 - 1929
Victoria & Albert Museum
Through 9 January 2011

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