Back in the day when I was a young graduate film student at New York University, I by chance caught Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (1970) on NET/Channel 13. To say that the film changed my life is an understatement. More than anything I had yet to learn at NYU, Gertrude Stein instantaneously toppled my perception of what a documentary film could, should and would be going forward into the final decades of the 20th century. It had nothing in common with the tired, formulaic “educational films” that I was raised on—those snooze-inducing films that held audiences captive in schools and libraries and on public TV.
For me as a budding film and art historian and journalist and for a whole generation of my peers—the young social issue filmmakers about to jump start their careers—that film opened a door to a whole new way of presenting and preserving artistic vision and visionaries. Through the skillful weaving together of rare interviews, archival clips, photographs and letters—the fruits of dogged research—with exquisite rendering of artwork and text, the filmmaker, Perry Miller Adato, succeeded in bringing to life, in riveting fashion, a community of artists and writers who many of us could only hope to “meet” on the printed page, on museum walls or in concert halls.
Adato went on to produce and direct many award-winning films on individual artists throughout the years and, in the process, influenced the evolution of such young filmmakers as Ken Burns and a host of women filmmakers who gained courage by following her lead. Adato’s life’s work came full circle with her most brilliant, beautifully conceived and thoughtfully researched film of all, Paris the Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern, a welcome rebroadcast on PBS at the start of the new year.
Of all the new and classic films I’ve seen in recent months, this encore airdate triggered my first epiphany of 2013… it was a happy reminder of why and how my love affair with documentaries and their makers came to be. If you care about the arts (fine art, music, dance, theatre, literature and documentary filmmaking at its best), I urge you not to miss this film (it’s currently available from PBS, Amazon, Netflix et al).
In the context of Adato’s previous work, this film makes perfect sense. It seamlessly pulls together all the distinctive elements in her toolbox into a film that is nothing short of a masterpiece One not only gains an overall sense of the historical period within which her subjects, the trailblazing European and American expatriates, lived and worked. But we are also privy to their position in the artistic subculture and hierarchy of the time, as well as the cultural and social influences on their work and the groundbreaking artistic, literary and musical movements that germinated in this very special place and time.
In short, Paris the Luminous Years not only stands as an epic achievement in documentary filmmaking, but also serves as an evergreen educational resource that should be mandatory viewing for all serious students of the history of 20th century art, literature, music and dance.
There are no false or irrelevant moments in this film. Especially invaluable are the crisp, spot-on shots of the artwork, one of Adato’s specialties, as well as her liberal use of fascinating and undoubtedly rare archival film footage, particularly the glorious period film clips of Parisian street life and café society and the content-rich clips of noted artists, writers and musicians who share personal anecdotes. Adato’s intelligent script manages to integrate, in novelistic fashion, a massive amount of research without seeming pedantic or compromising the integrity of the material.
Paris may represent the Shangri-La of romance and fantasy for many viewers today (e.g., Woody Allen’s wistful romantic comedy, Midnight in Paris), but the City of Light best be remembered for the more important role it played in the lives of artistic visionaries (circa 1900-30) who needed Paris to create a body of work that ultimately reshaped the landscape of the arts forever. Perry Miller Adato delivers that message loud and clear in Paris the Luminous Years, and with her rich and incomparable body of work secures her place in the cinematic pantheon. Bravo, Perry! —Judith Trojan