Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Midnight in Paris" and the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s

The Oscar-nominated “Midnight in Paris” is Woody Allen’s best film since “Match Point” (2005), if not “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989).  Set in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a writer who wanders the City of Lights each evening looking for inspiration.  When the clock strikes midnight one night, a car takes him back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, where he hobnobs with literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  They were among many American intellectuals, often referred to as the “Lost Generation,” who left the country during the Roaring Twenties.  Disillusioned by World War I and frustrated by the dominance of conservative values in their home country, they made their way to France.

In the years before the First World War, many intellectuals held optimistic beliefs about the inevitability of human progress.  Such views were shattered by the devastation of the trenches and the Western Front (see post on Spielberg’s “War Horse” himself was wounded in the conflict.

For the first time, the census showed that a majority of Americans lived in cities in 1920.  During the subsequent decade, rural and urban Americans clashed over cultural issues as many in the heartland feared that traditional Victorian values were fading in the face of the rise of the cities and secular ideas.  The divisions of this period were akin to the contemporary divide between “red” and “blue” states.

The strength of rural conservatism disturbed some of the urban intellectuals and if abortion, gay rights, and gun control represent the cultural divides of the 1990s and early 21st century, then alcohol, immigration, and evolution were the analogous splits of the 1920s.  Throughout the decade, Prohibition reigned as the law of the land, though it was routinely flouted.  The Ku Klux Klan expanded beyond its traditional rural Southern base and garnered support across the country, controlling the politics of states such as Indiana and Colorado.  In this period, the Klan’s agenda went beyond a desire to maintain racial supremacy and extended to concerns about rising immigration from eastern and southern Europe as well as the power of the Catholic Church. Their influence grew to the point that the Klan helped prevent the Democratic Party from nominating Al Smith, the governor of New York and a Catholic, for president in 1924.  Finally, religious modernists and fundamentalists battled over evolution laws in a number of states, culminating in the famous clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee.

The emerging consumer culture of the period also disturbed the American expatriates.  The US economy boomed in the 1920s, and while not all shared in the prosperity, the middle class grew and new and exciting products such as radios became available.  From the perspective of the “Lost Generation,” too many Americans of this time were simply concerned about making money and “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Not all fled.  Some stayed and critiqued American culture from home.  But others went to Paris where they ran into Woody Allen—or at least Owen Wilson playing Woody Allen.

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