Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Lost Generation--has it been found?

The French cherish a peculiar expression: le Tout-Paris. By common consent (chez eux), this term does not designate the totality of the inhabitants of the City of Light, but is restricted to a privileged segment of them. Essentially, le Tout-Paris is a collective label for prominent celebrities and persons in the public eye.

These are what we sometimes call the bold-face personalities, as distinct from us ordinary folk.

I thought of this expression the other day when I saw Woody Allen’s new filmic bonbon, “Midnight in Paris.” This is strictly a Tout-Paris for an Anglo-Saxon audience, since Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso would not really have made the grade, since they were foreigners.

In the main part of the movie, Gil Pender, a nerdish Hollywood writer played by Owen Wilson, realizes his fantasies in Paris by being transported each night back to the ‘twenties to meet the company just mentioned. In between there are deadly contemporary cameos of a grumpy American businessman (Gil's prospective father-in-law), who hates the French, and a pretentious college professor, who loves them. The pairing implies, sensibly enough, that charting a middle course between the extremes of francophobia and francomania is best. The main part of the film is lots of fun. However, the movie's beginning and ending are alike somewhat embarrassing--a series of picture postcards of famous Parisian sites at the outset, and a further name-dropping trip back to the Belle Epoque of the 1890s at the end.

At any rate, all this brought back memories. Already in high school (1949-52) I had become disillusioned with American hucksterism and shallowness, and longed to move to Paris. That city, and France as a whole, I somehow felt, had preserved their cultural heritage and commitments undefiled. I taught myself to read French, and even today I commonly sequester myself with the classics of that language, absorbing them with pleasure without a dictionary. In addition, my interest meshed with my attachment to the literary avant-garde (I aspired to be a poet). The two fascinations came together, of course, in the cynosure of the Lost Generation of the 1920s.

Somewhere in this period of my life I chanced upon a marvelous book “Paris Was Our Mistress” (1947). The author was Samuel Putnam (1892-1950), best known as a translator of Don Quixote. Putnam went to France about 1927, remaining there with his wife and child, until 1934. He relates his encounters with Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, James Joyce, Luigi Pirandello, and many others. He also wrote about artists, especially Picasso, one of my idols. My sense is that Putnam’s book ranks as the unacknowledged template for Allen’s film.

Later, of course, Hemingway was to write his own first-person account, “A Moveable Feast.” Yet I always felt that Putnam had created the definitive Baedeker for us Paris-worshippers. His book is still in print.

PS. The most amusing line in the movie is uttered by Pender, riffing on T. S. Eliot's complaint about the indignity of measuring out one's life in "coffee spoons." Gil changes it to "coke spoons" (not of course the beverage). Too true. In addition, I commend Woody Allen for his forbearance in not mentioning the cliche of Alice B. Toklas' recipe for marijuana brownies (actually hashish fudge).



Anonymous said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.

6:57 AM  

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