"In shallow shoals English soles do it./Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it," Cole Porter wrote in 1928 for the musical "Paris."
What are the English soles and goldfish up to in their shallow shoals and private bowls? If you think they're making whoopee, finding love, or like every self-respecting politico, sexting, you'd be wrong.
No. These lively creatures in their innermost souls, are time traveling to that (longed for) arcadia where art was the unsullied currency and creativity irrigated the earth whenever it rained. As a creative artist, do the shoals and fish remind you of anyone you know (say, see in the mirror every day)? They reminded me, a poet who often wishes to have been alive in London in the 1920's or New York City in the 1940's, of moi.
Lately, I've been a frequent time-traveler–at the movies, watching DVDs and in my mind–going from the past to the present and back again. Along the way, sipping wine, munching popcorn, mainlining chocolate (anything to ease our suffering), my muse and I have been wondering: How do we make art now–when our time is so troubled? Are we current artists grossly inferior to the greats of the past? Were the artistic geniuses of prior generations as despairing as we are? When is art ahead of its time?
Two of my recent time-travel forays have been Woody Allen's charming movie "Midnight in Paris," and Dick Van Dyke's memoir "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business" (along with DVDs of the justly beloved "Dick Van Dyke Show").
Allen is in top form in "Midnight in Paris," a film filled with the charm, romanticism, melancholy, wit and cinematic elegance of his earlier masterpiece "Manhattan." (It's not quite as fabulous as "Manhattan," yet it's by no means destined to reside in The Academy of the Over-Rated. Not to be "elitist,"but if you don't know what The Academy is, you should hop off the time-travel express now.)
Who isn't a creative artist or artistic wannabe, and what self-respecting artiste isn't chomping at the bit to hang out with the fab, talented, cool, imaginative, genre-bending, convention breaking geniuses of a golden age? Especially, if as is the case with Gil, the protagonist in Allen's movie, it's hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Djuana Barnes, Salvador Dali, Picasso and their set in Paris in the 1920's.
After all, these artists wrote, painted and composed perfectly, frolicking with their muses, in a happy, settled era. When kumbaya reigned and angst was too carefree to raise her anxious head. Before the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, Hiroshima and Vietnam could have been imagined. Prior to when genocide in Rwanda, global warming, the current recession, the recent earthquake/nuclear power meltdown in Japan, the Tea Party, the nano-sec news cycle-Sarah Palin became the radioactive soundtrack of our lives.
Excuse me, I have to attend to my muse. The pesky creature is tugging at my sleeve. "Look around!" she commands, "before you imbibe too much absinthe! Think: what's really on the menu at Papa's Moveable Feast?"
Never one to disobey her demands, I put down my shot glass of la fee verte and bask in the scene. What do I see, smell, touch and hear in the midst of this bohemian arcadia? The graves of the millions of soldiers killed in the trenches of World war I (the "war to end all wars"); prosthetic limbs (mementos of "the Great War"), the moans of the thousands and thousands felled by the 1918 flu epidemic; the cries of countless victims of the Armenian genocide; the stench of impoverished sweat shop workers; and the howls of countless members of "the lost generation" driven mad by ravages of battles and desperation.
I write of my melancholy journey with my muse on the 50th anniversary of Papa's death. A half century ago, this month in 1961, Hemingway killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho. Most likely the talented, but troubled writer took his own life from depression. But could some of his despondency have grown from despair with contemporary life–with the recognition that his time during the Roaring Twenties in "gay Paree" should be best remembered as (he wrote in the introduction to "A Moveable Feast") as "fiction?"
There is, of course, "truth" and "fiction," optimism and despair in any time period. In "Midnight in Paris," one of the characters from the 1920's, a fictional mistress of Picasso, laments that she's not living in the fabulous 1890's.
The first thing Adam and Eve did, after donning a fig leaf, was to wax nostalgic. "Ah!," Eve said to Adam, "it's terrible now! You can't trust snakes. If he doesn't watch it, Cain's gonna murder Able!"
"You wanna know what really sucks?" asked Adam, "having to wear clothes!"
Joking aside, the past which seems so fascinating and inspiring to our muse compared to now, was often brimming with prejudice and limitations on personal and artistic expression. This is made vibrantly clear in the touching movie "Beginners," which tells the story of Hal, a man who comes out as gay at age 75. (The film is based on the life of its director Mike Mills whose father disclosed that he was queer after his wife had died.) Hal married Georgia, who was Jewish, in the 1950's. In one of the movie's most moving scenes, Hal tells his son Oliver (referring to the homophobia and anti-Semitism of the mid-nineteenth century), "Your mother took off her Jewish badge, and I took off my gay badge, and we got married."
Having said this, the past, nowhere more than in its art, had much that was good. Paris in the 1920's was a magical, creative time. Perhaps, spurred on by the tragedy around them; maybe ignited by a combo of personalities, history and genius; the luminaries in Allen's movie made luminous art that will endure as long as there's time.
Sometimes we over-romanticize works of art from bygone eras-whether from Paris in the 1920's or ancient Greece. At other times, we under rate (like the snobs in "Manhattan," who run The Academy of The Over Rated) art of the past, because its creators aren't as cool as we are. Because they weren't on Facebook (like us), "dark" (as only we know how to be) or transgressive enough (they didn't snort coke while engaging in multiple extra-marital affairs on Twitter).
Last month, a piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review smugly called out Dick Van Dyke for being "too well adjusted to tap his own potential" and derided the sophisticated, witty 1960's sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (created by Carl Reiner and based on the brilliant "Your Show of Shows") for its "insulation from the harsher facts of show business personal misery."
Oh, that Shakespeare frittering away his potential on all those fools and fairies!
True, Robert Petrie was no Don Draper. But, though a comedy, "The Dick Van Dyke Show"'s head wasn't in the sand. It was one of the few shows of its time to feature black people as regular folks rather than (as was the norm) as stereotypical maids or Stepin Fetchits. The sit-com was one of a very few shows featuring a Jewish character (Buddy) who was a funny, kind human being, not an anti-Semitic stereotype. And, my muse reminds me, I (along with lots of other women of my generation), learned that girls could hold their own with men in art (from Sally-a writer on "The Alan Brady Show.").
As has been famously said, "we are all diseases of our time." If you watch "The Dick Van Dyke Show" on DVD, you'll find people smoking cigarettes, Sally hunting for a husband, and Laura being girly housewives with next-door neighbor Millie (when today, they'd be professional women or "homemakers"). But more often than not, you'll find great acting, terrific writing and smart, interesting characters. In short, you'll discover yet another example of art that is of and transcends its time.
Isn't that what we strive to do, as we make art, while tripping over the ottoman and stumbling into Midnight in Paris?