I was midway through Martin Scorscese's HUGO, when I asked myself "What's going on with film directors and the 1920's?"
The Roaring Twenties!
Okay, this revelation came to me as I was munching popcorn under the earnestly cornflower-blue gaze of little Asa Butterfield in mid-February 2012, it hit me just how many films of that past year were set in or just before the decade of the 1920's. If you can recall 2011 and the movie crop, there were several prominent films, Oscar fodder all, that were set in the 1920's. Also with more French references than an undergraduate art major.
A little background information about me that will come as no surprise to anyone who's read a couple of my recent columns - I'm a BIG Oscar fan. I go to parties. I throw parties. I have a collection of OSCAR DECORATIONS, for the love of God. I own a tiara that is reserved exclusively for - you got it - Oscar parties! In spite of this fanaticism, I always manage to miss a couple of the Best Picture contenders, so, last year, I decided to go out of my way to see as many as possible, so as to avoid feeling likely a sparkly hypocrite.
You had HUGO, of course, in the magnificent Art Noveau train station in Paris, reviving the movies of an earlier generation. Then, there was THE ARTIST, the ultimate big winner, about the trials of a silent film star entering the brave new world of talkies, with its French connections more subtle but undeniably there. What about MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, with Owen Wilson inexplicably playing Woody Allen as a twitchy Goy? No subtlety there at all - the Wilson/Allen character, through the sheer magic of being unhappily engaged to Rachel McAdams, manages to wander from the Twentieth Century back to the early 1920's in order to hobnob with Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the rest of the gang. In Paris, nateurellement!
Even the Winner of the Best Short Animated Film of 2011, THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR. MORRIS LESSMORE, though an animated film without dialogue, has a definite 1920's feel to it. Its hero is clearly modeled on Buster Keaton,
with his huge, soulful eyes and straw boater. The film, in a reverse homage to the WIZARD OF OZ, begins with a tornado which sweeps its characters out of a colored world into a black and white world, however briefly. And France? Well, a bit of research (ok, Wikipedia, sue me!) showed that the original setting was New Orleans, the Frenchest city America has. Check out the close up on the pages of the books, which coincidentally reside in a chateau ...and, yes, they're in French!
Morris and Books, Flying!
So, what gives? It seems a tremendous coincidence that four disparate filmmakers chose such similar backdrops in terms of time and place.
All four films explore an artist's crisis in the creation of his art; in two of the four, it is the filmmaker's art and in the other two, the writer's. In HUGO, little orphaned Hugo resides in the walls of a Parisian train station, where he has taken it upon himself to keep the clocks running, while he struggles to repair the glorious golden automaton that is his last link to his dead father. Little does he know that his nemesis, the toymaker with a repair shop in the station, from whom he steals parts for his automaton, is, in fact, Georges Meliers. Meliers was one of the first filmmakers, back at the turn of the century and a brilliantly creative engineer. Most everyone has seen his iconic image from VOYAGE TO THE MOON, of a spaceship crashing into the eye of the Man in the Moon. In HUGO, Meliers is bitter and forgotten, his films have been destroyed and he is reduced to a poor and forgotten position. As it turns out, Hugo's automaton has an almost mystical link to Meliers' work and, as the creation is repaired, it draws Hugo and Meliers' granddaughter to draw the old artist out and back into the public eye. The movie ends with Meliers rediscovered by the Parisian film community and lauded once again.
THE ARTIST would make a nifty double feature with SINGING IN THE RAIN, since it, too, revolves around the period in the 1920's when the silents were ending and the talkies were coming in. It doesn't hurt
that Jean Dujardin looks a lot like Gene Kelly. Here, he is the great movie star who finds himself washed up when sound comes in. The film charts his downward spiral, while a girl who was discovered when she attended one of his films premieres rises up the ranks to become a movie star herself. It's all pretty A STAR IS BORN -esque. But, in a manner similar to HUGO's Meliers, the Dujardin character not only falls off the radar of the public, he plummets into the gutter, until the girl's unending affection for him ultimately redeems him.
Dujardin and furry costar.
As mentioned before, THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS is about books. After Morris is whisked away to his reverse Oz, he becomes the keeper of books. Not a librarian, not by a long shot. More like a father, a guardian and a healer. The books are his wards and his children, a bunch of literary birds that flutter in and out of his chateau as he writes his story. He was a reader in his original world; in his new world, he is a writer and a creator as much as a nurturer. If he misses his first world, there is no sign of it in this little gem of a movie. (If you haven't seen it, it's available on YouTube and well worth the 15 minute run time.)
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is nothing if not nostalgic. Unlike the other films, it was set in the present, but its hero, Wilson, despondent over his stalled writing career and in a funk over his impending marriage, wanders the streets of Paris at midnight and is picked up by a car that takes him back in time about ninety years. He is entranced by the excitement of the time, when Paris is populated by the great emigre artists of the time: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Stein and Dali among them. The film is a meditation on the merits of a romantic past against the reality of the present.
The balance between the past and the present seems to be the through line in all the 1920's films of that year. I suspect it has something to do with a longing look back at a time when there were huge technological advances (cars, planes, machines, indoor electricity) that were
reshaping people's lives at a very basic level, while sociological advances were changing people themselves. Keep in mind, there was a form of women's liberation going on everywhere, with the flapper and suffrage movement, and, in Europe any way, black people were becoming accepted, at least in artistic settings (consider Josephine Baker, who'd become the prominent figure on the Parisian stage). Progress and art seemed to go hand in hand in the 1920's. Today, technology and art seem to be a bit at odds. Writing, at least in the classical sense, is suffering body blows from the prevalence of text-speak. Film is becoming business oriented and, although independent films remain innovative and are becoming more mainstream through film festivals, Hollywood is growing stale, chained to sequels and remakes. (I am appalled that there is a remake of EVIL DEAD opening, without Bruce Campbell! Blasphemy! Nothing to do with this column, but blasphemy none the less! Thanks, had to get that off my chest!) Filmmakers like Scorsese and Allen are certainly of an earlier time that saw massive changes in the filmmaker's art and, judging from the movies they made in 2012, I presume they're less than thrilled at the current state of film. So the nostalgia for a time when change brought a burst of literary and cinematic creativity.
The Great Josephine Baker!
This year's Oscar crop was not 1920's heavy at all, but, supposedly, Baz Luhrmann's THE GREAT GATSBY with Leonardo DiCaprio is due to open this year. I'm not frankly optimistic. Luhrmann is a visually amazing director, but he's wildly uneven from a storytelling POV, and this film has had many false starts - first, opening a year ago, then in December, now, who knows? Not a great sign. I also have a bit of a problem with an early trailer for the film, which showed Times Square in the 1920's with a prominent sign advertising Ziegfeld's Follies, except Ziegfeld was misspelled as Zeigfeld! That's a major mistake not to catch! So we'll see about GATSBY.
What are your thoughts on film's current love affair with the 1920's?
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|A Musing in Movieland|
Every other Sunday
One woman's attempt to find meaning in movies, from movies, and between movies and to figure out why movies should matter to us, all while trying to find a laugh in the whole, screwy business."
I'm still cautiously optimistic that there really is a pattern to our lives and am striving to find mine, although I secretly suspect that life is really just about a Big, Space Baby. Which would be disappointing. And confusing. But, hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about it all, right? Philosophical stuff aside, I am an attorney, an artist and a performer and, if I could figure out a way to make the last two pay the bills, I'd dump the first one tomorrow.|
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