The second half of Paris: The Luminous Years documentary focuses on the exhilarating decade of the 1920s, between the end of the Great War and the Wall Street of 1929. Iconic writers such as Joseph Kessel talk about the euphoria of being alive in those post-war years. This was quickly followed by political protests, social upheavals and new movements such as Dada, led by Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara, which became an overnight sensation in Paris and gave artists permission to break all the rules. After violence escalated, Breton decided something more constructive was needed and wrote The Magnetic Fields (pioneering his style of automatic writing, as if in a dream), thus launching Surrealism.
Surrealism's greatest success was among painters such as Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Joan Miro, whose style evolved remarkably fast from the traditional approach shown in The Farm to embrace the abstract features and strong colors that made him famous. The movie then touches upon Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades.
Then, after one hour and twenty minutes, the best part: the segment on the Americans in Paris. We are told that U.S. soldiers returning to America after the Great War found a highly repressive and restricted society, soon to be in the thralls of Prohibition, and could not return to the City of Lights fast enough. Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 with his wife Hadley. His years in Paris were later the focus of his memoir A Moveable Feast. Early on he was close friend with Gertrude Stein, until 1925 when Stein refused to write a positive review of In Our Time.
The movie then drifts away to the topic of American women in Paris, who were fleeing the stifling conventions of life in the U.S. where they were expected to marry and take care of the home, and instead flourished in Saint-Germain-des-Pres - women like Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, Romaine Brooks and of course Sylvia Beach, at which point the movie pivots to her bookstore Shakespeare & Company, her relationship with Adrienne Monnier and the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Continuing on its enumeration of American women in Paris, the movie shows footage of Josephine Baker, and then transitions to Langston Hughes (not a woman, but American), who found himself a job as a bus boy in one of the most famous jazz clubs in Paris, and incorporated jazz rhythms and sounds in his own writing. The movie stays on the jazz theme by touching upon composers such as Darius Milhaud brought together ideas from jazz and classical music, taking La Creation du Monde as an example, with sets by Fernand Leger.
Then, after a digression on Erik Satie and his being a mentor to young composers, we move on to Aaron Copland, who came to Paris when he was in his twenties to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, with a short segment on Boulanger's Wednesday classes and salons. Then Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929 in Venice, the Wall Street crisis of October 1929 sent most U.S. expatriate artists home, and that was the end of the luminous years.
The New York Times review of the documentary, back in 2010 when it first aired on PBS, is certainly right that the documentary is at times plodding and didactic, and my notes above and in my previous post show it meanders a lot, pivoting from one story to the next without much overarching theme in its determination to stuff as much art as possible in the two hours of the movie. It is also a pity that the filmmaker didn't spend any time on Chagall, since his artwork graces the cover of the DVD. To keep the movie interesting there is an attempted focus on the artists who made the art, for instance through the soured friendship between Braque and Picasso, but we never spend enough time on one character to really care for that person. On the other hand, many artists in the Paris of the 1920s led fascinating lives and it is a treat to learn a little about so many. The excellent information the movie provides and the images it offers of Paris in its heyday as well as of groundbreaking art make it well worth a watch.
I'll end with a quote by Marc Chagall that is particularly dear to my heart, since I moved to Paris myself when I was young: If I had not gone to Paris, I would not be who I am.