Friday, September 27, 2013

Here’s a Picture of René Clair Chilling with Erik Satie: Some Thoughts on Artistic Movements and Communities

Of the many time periods/places I would have liked to inhabit, 1920’s Paris has to be in the top five.  Everybody was there.  Gertrude Stein hung out with Picasso who painted Stravinsky who (maybe) had an affair with Coco Chanel.  René Clair apparently hung out with Erik Satie, because why not?

Clair and Satie, 1924.
But it’s not just nostalgia or romanticism that attracts me to 1920’s Paris (although that’s certainly an element) but rather the attraction of a historically significant intellectual milieu.  I’ve never lived in one and I don’t know where I’d go to find one today.  It used to be you had Beats in New York, poets in Heian Kyoto, decadents in 1890’s London, and fucking everybody in Paris.  Is there anywhere like that in the United States today? Or in the world, even? (or perhaps there is and we just haven’t recognized it yet? Or my attention has not been called to it?)

The great Mexican poet and essayist and intellectual jack-of-all-trades Octavio Paz frequently harps on this theme in his essays; he says the last major artistic movement was the Surrealist movement, and that after that everything became fragmented.  Now, that doesn’t mean that important works of art haven’t been produced since the Surrealists, but Paz says you don’t have zeitgeisty artistic waves like you used to.

I’d argue that the French New Wave constitutes an artistic movement, but you know, I don’t think Paz was into film.  He held forth on every other artistic medium, but I don’t remember him ever discussing cinema.  With the French New Wave, you have a community of people who know each other and work together (the former writers for Cahiers du cinéma: Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, etc.) and certain commonalities of style.  You also have a distinctive break with the recent past while hearkening back to previous artistic movements; in this case, the New Wavers are breaking with French studio cinema and its Hollywood counterparts and referring back to Italian neorealism and the poetic realism of the inter-war period.  It’s similar to how Ezra Pound sought to “make it new” and become ultra-modern by reviving the poetry of the French troubadours and bringing classical Chinese poetry to the “West.” Perhaps the recent New Waves in Romania, Iran, and Thailand qualify as artistic movements of the type that Paz thought had gone extinct.  So there’s hope in that.

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