The Moderns: Eliding 1920s Paris with 1980s Los Angeles

By Samuel B. Prime

In its opening moments, Alan Rudolph’s nineteen-twenties art world period piece The Moderns (1988) gently fades from a crisp, historical black-and-white to the rich, warm palette of a smoky Parisian café. Its camera encircles the face of its protagonist, a struggling painter by the name of Nicholas Hart (Keith Carradine). It reveals a man who – in the words of his companion Oiseau (Wallace Shawn) – manages to exist “among the throng, but not of the throng” to support his interim work as a cartoonist for the aforementioned friend’s weekly gossip column. He also supplements his sketches with complicated forgeries for an unsavory art dealer. “Can a faker ever be the real thing?” the film seems to ask in its margins. While Hart aspires to the cache of talents and tastemakers like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, he cannot make a proper living without the blessing of the fickle art critics, so-called experts, and the cultural gatekeepers of the day. Hart wants to win the game, but cannot stand playing it. He wants to lose the lost generation forever and start anew, but if he’s not careful he might lose much more. Hollywood, “the city of the future,” may be his salvation.

Rudolph’s film is an unquestionable love letter to the arts and culture of 1920s Paris, but it draws a keen parallel to the 1980s Los Angeles scene which – during the making of The Moderns – was on the precipice of marking its own end. And since The Moderns is a delayed fuse road movie on the way to Hollywood, the subtextual joke of the movie is that the Hollywood of the present day is not so starkly different from the world of the film. Poets and novelists of the crowded cafés have been replaced by the punks and rockers of dingy nightclubs. Everything else is more or less the same. One, a lost generation, and the other a generation born to lose. Both Paris of the 1920s and Los Angeles of the 1980s were singular, unrepeatable places in time that inspired imitators, even imitators of imitators, and eventually rose to the level of parody. If, like two minor characters in The Moderns, you come from Ohio but try to make a life for yourself in Paris, at what point do you begin to refer to yourself as Parisian? Both cultures are obsessed with the notion of what it means to be authentic. It seems as if only those who establish cultural context can determine it.

Oiseau observes that there are those who “buy their way into culture,” not understanding why a piece of art or writing resonates with an audience versus one that does not. In The Moderns, the embodiment of the wealthy outsider wanting to be an insider is Bertram Stone (John Lone), an entrepreneur who has accumulated great wealth through the invention of a contraceptive device. His 1980s equivalent is the young Wall Street upstart, the yuppie, the young professional who can afford modern extravagances. And this is the core philosophy of Stone: money. How much something cost is equivalent to its worth. But this is not always the case. It is possible to pay a great deal of money for something – as Stone learns in the course of the narrative – that in the view of experts is “only suitable for the fire.” Rightly or wrongly, the whims of culture vary in accordance with their gatekeepers. Thus there exists the tension between those who create art, those who experience it in a genuine way, and those who can afford to own its manifestations (but in a way that is more performative than anything else). It is this facade that The Moderns intends to critique, while demonstrating its resilience. The situation – the place, the time – may change, but years beyond, in an altogether different context, there will still be those who surround themselves with culture without remotely understanding what it means to those for whom it is a way of living, breathing, and dying; who are hopelessly defined by their small world.

Likewise, there are those who are drawn to a time and place because of its allure and without any ambition to be part of the daily goings-on. These are the ones who may mistake Hemingway for Fitzgerald without ever realizing their error; a sad, horrible lampoon of culture as an ephemerality perhaps known by many, but understood by a comparative minority. Knowing the names and the titles associated with a place and time is not the same as having read, seen, and felt. This aspect of personal experience cannot be faked. It is, in fact, the realest aspect on display in The Moderns.

As if to confirm this parallel between 1920s Paris and 1980s Los Angeles, there is a brief scene where the camera pans right across a café, while a pianist plunks and sings along and patrons sit in appreciation, drinking and smoking, in various stages of undress. When the camera at long last settles, we see a vision of a radical future: punks in leather jackets with low-hanging earrings, a big cowboy of a gentleman smoking a gigantic cigar, members of an apparent girl gang wearing their oversized sweaters. This is the Hollywood that will exist a full lifetime after the characters of the movie, the world that they leave for their children. It’s not so terribly different, after all, but when real and fake collide, the only thing that makes sense is to be as real as can be: sincerely yourself.


Samuel B. Prime is a moving image advocate, writer, and curator based in Los Angeles. He spends his days working at Annapurna Pictures in West Hollywood, CA. He is also a contributor to MUBI, The Village Voice, and LAist (R.I.P.).