Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Let’s get lost

I read something in the newspaper that has had me excited ever since I read it, just a few days after the U.S. election. In The Irish Times, Chicago-born writer Will Sullivan, who is an intern for the Times, wrote that, in the two days following the election, he had received “dozens of phone calls and emails from Americans who no longer seem to be joking” about intentions expressed before the election to emigrate if Bush won.

Sullivan doesn’t explain why these people were phoning and writing him rather than, say, some foreign embassy, so I guess they were personal acquaintances and/or colleagues. In any event, Sullivan’s observation was confirmed by reports by the Canadian and Australian embassies in the U.S. that they had seen a spike in inquiries about resident visas. The Australian embassy sniffed that they don’t allow just anyone to immigrate to their country and that they were particularly interested in young people with useful skills. It wasn’t clarified as to whether this category would necessarily include actors, rock musicians, or New York Times columnists.

“This isn’t the first time Americans have regrouped in foreign lands,” Sullivan observed. “In the 1920s, a group of young Americans fleeing perceived moralistic and social vapidity in post-first World War American culture left en masse for Europe.” Some of the famous members of the exodus were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane and Gertrude Stein. These expatriots were collectively dubbed the Lost Generation by Stein, who picked up the coinage from a garage manager, who had referred to une géneration perdue.

You can see why this has excited me. For once in my life, I am actually ahead of the curve. I am already lost! I didn’t wait for the second George W. Bush victory. I immigrated to Europe more than two years ago. Of course, strictly speaking, I didn’t leave America for political reasons. It was simply the easiest way to be near my wife, since it was clear from practically the day we met that she would be moving back to Ireland. Still, I am here. Now, I can be the old-timer who helps all the new expats, as they get off the boat, to get their bearings. Only a couple of problems with this: 1) probably very few will actually be coming by boat, and 2) I don’t know how many of the new wave of immigrants will actually be coming to the west of Ireland. Tradition suggests that they will go to Paris. Heck, even the first time around, no one was coming to Ireland. In fact, Irish writers themselves (James Joyce, Samuel Beckett) were going to the continent.

The Lost Generation has long had a fascination for those Americans who feel some affinity for what is now called “old Europe.” When I spent a year as a student in France, my American friends and I made it a holy duty to retrace the steps of various of our Lost Generation heroes. Chief among these, of course, was Ernest Hemingway. One of our student group was a short, brash fellow named Charles. Everyone called him “Chas” and he was the only university student I knew who regularly wore a coat and tie to class. While he looked like a Young Republican, he was a Hemingway fanatic. On our weekend jaunts out from Bordeaux, from Biarritz to San Sebastian to Barcelona, Chas invariably made a point of informing us of every café, bar or back alley along the way that had reportedly been frequented by his idol Ernest. Needless to say, when we got to Paris, the whole city was a veritable Hemingway-fest of memories.

It seems odd to me that there aren’t more movies about the Lost Generation in Paris. The preeminent novel on this topic would be Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which was produced as a film by Darryl Zanuck in 1957. It featured fictionalized versions of the group, played by the likes of Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, Errol Flynn and Eddie Albert. An inferior remake for TV came out in 1984, starring Jane Seymour and Hart Bochner. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a huge amount of celluloid expended on the topic. Some of the generation’s luminous names show up from time to time in movie titles all right, e.g. Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, but these films have little to do with the actual people mentioned. Alan Rudolph did make a film about the group in 1988 called The Moderns, which mixed fictional characters with real ones. Kevin J. O’Connor, as Hemingway, was a bit player next to Keith Carradine and Linda Fiorentino. Toklas and Stein were the subject of 1987 film called Waiting for the Moon, starring Linda Bassett as Stein and Linda Hunt as Toklas. Unfortunately, that flick didn’t make the pair or their friends seem particularly interesting or stimulating.

Probably the best way to appreciate the creativity and vitality of Paris in those days is to see Andrea Weiss’s documentary Paris Was a Woman. As the title suggests, the film focuses mainly on the women of the era. Nor does it restrict itself to the American community. Based on what I have seen anyway, I would say that Weiss’s film does the best job of giving us a sense of what that time and place were like.

So, where should 21st-century would-be Hemingways go these days? That’s an interesting question. Part of Hemingway’s romantic appeal was the way he went to cover foreign wars as a journalist and then idealistically got involved in the combat himself. During World War I, he left his job with the Kansas City Star to go become an ambulance driver in Italy and then join the infantry, where he got seriously wounded. Years later, he went to cover the Spanish Civil War for a newspaper, and during World War II became an “embedded” reporter with the U.S. First Army, where again he left aside his typewriter to pick up a gun. Perhaps the spirit of the Hemingway-esque romantic hero is best caught by Humphrey Bogart in the classic Casablanca. As the mysterious American Rick Blaine, Bogart keeps his head down in wartime French Morocco. He seems to be a complete cynic, reminding anyone who will listen that he looks out only for himself. But when the resistance leader Victor Laszlo meets with him, Laszlo reveals, “My friends in the underground tell me that you have quite a record. You ran guns to Ethiopia. You fought against the fascists in Spain.” By the end of the movie, a romantically rejuvenated Rick has sent off the love of his life to fight the good fight beside her husband, while Rick and his buddy Louis Renault walk off into the night to do their bit against the fascists.

The ultimate cause for romantic heroes in the 1930s was Spain. Volunteers from around the world poured into the country to help defend, in vain, the republic that was overthrown by the reactionary forces of Francisco Franco. But there’s no need to go to Spain today. Franco has been dead for nearly 30 years, and Spain has a democratic government that is currently run by the Socialists. Where in the world, then, should idealists go to try to fan the flames of democracy? As it happens, these days the two countries where foreigners are trying their best to fan the flames of democracy are in, er, Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries were under the heel of ruthless dictatorships and now are in the process of establishing democratic institutions, admittedly under mostly American and British tutelage and military enforcement. Afghanistan, while by no means perfect, is going surprisingly well and has just had elections. Iraq is more problematic, since there is a full-blown insurgency against the foreigners. But doesn’t the inferred aims of the insurgents (either Saddam redux or a reactionary theocracy) put them more or less in the same category as the franquistas in 1930s Spain? Yet the very sort of people one would expect to rally to the cause of those Iraqis trying to establish representative democracy (and opinion polls have shown that the vast majority want it) decry the ongoing American and British intervention. You know the people I mean: the academics, the artists, the politicians on the left. The same people who usually champion liberation and democracy. When it comes to Iraq, either they taint the whole thing with legalistic condemnation of the original invasion (I know there were no WMDs, but don’t the mass graves count for something?) or they talk about American corporate greed or, least comprehensibly, they sniff that really intelligent people understand that democracy just isn’t for every culture and that “stability” is better than the admittedly messy situation that exists now. I guess the bottom line is that a struggle for democracy simply isn’t authentic if the largest military power in the world is helping out. Or maybe authenticity is reserved strictly for struggles that are doomed. I dunno. It’s too confusing for me. Maybe, if I feel like emulating Hemingway, I’ll just emulate the older Hemingway, who hung out near the beach in Cuba and did prodigious amounts of drinking.

Still, the question remains: Is this new Lost Generation now actually making its way to Paris? In my never-ending, self-sacrificing quest to provide the information that readers of this web site need to know, I plan to go there this weekend and see just what’s going on. It’s a lousy job but, hey, somebody’s got to do it.

-S.L., 18 November 2004

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