The Moderns (1988) from  Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast"  

Ernest Hemingway


This movie must have seemed like a great idea on paper.

When Ernest Hemingway was an older man looking back on his youthful days in Paris in the 1920's, he wrote a candid memoir called "A Moveable Feast", which was filled with anecdotes and observations about that long spring of intellectual flowering. Although his time was spent among the most famous expatriate artistic community ever assembled - people like Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Pound -  he was not always respectful of his acquaintances. He disliked the company of author Ford Madox Ford, and he loathed Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott's unbalanced wife, whose role in life seemed to be to keep Scott drunk, unproductive, and afraid of other women. He ridiculed Gertrude Stein, the would-be writer who gave The Lost Generation its name by borrowing the phrase from a garage keeper. Stein was the type of person who never talked to the wives of writers, only to writers. Hemingway was not unaware of Stein's brilliance and wit, and he actively courted her friendship and conversation at one time, but his reminiscences also focused on her egomania, her inability to tolerate any disagreement with her ideas, her inability to write anything memorable, her dislike of "the drudgery of revision", her preference for forgotten hack writers over D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, and the fact that she just "talked a lot of rot".

By the time Hemingway wrote his memoir, thirty years or more after the events he described, most of his cast was dead, so he felt free to write of them candidly. He was not often flattering, nor was he very flattering to himself, because he wrote the book during a time when he was beginning to question his own self-worth and the choices he had made in his life. More than anything else, A Moveable Feast is his own loud cry of "Rosebud", a lament about the high price of a glittering career which had ultimately cost him his innocence, his first marriage, and his youthful happiness. As he wrote the book, Hemingway was then rapidly approaching the state of mind that would lead to his suicide. In fact, between the writing of the memoir and its publication, Papa had decided to reunite with his old crowd at their feast's new, permanent underground location.

The concept of this movie was to take those vivid characters, as seen through Hemingway's eyes, and to use them as the backdrop for a completely unrelated fictional story, thus making the fiction seem to be part of the moveable feast. In addition to the colorful characters, there was the slow, bluesy jazz of the era (the great black musicians found France more hospitable than the USA), and the unforgettable sights of Paris. It was not just eternal Paris, which is impressive enough, but Paris in the sunshine of that particular era when the long, grim winter of the first great war had ended, and the swastika had not yet emerged to eclipse the continental sun.

And the main plot isn't so bad. An art forger creates three brilliant copies - a Matisse, a Modigliani and an "uncopiable" Cezanne. He works directly from the originals, which are supplied by a wealthy woman who wishes to steal the originals and leave the copies with her philandering husband. She welches on her payment, which causes the forger to withhold the originals. She then steals them back from his studio, but only the artist knows that she has inadvertently stolen the copies instead. He is therefore in possession of three paintings of great value.

The scriptwriter is able to use this premise to comment on the value of art. The forger and his unscrupulous dealer conspire to sell the originals to a nouveau riche brute, who treasures them until they are pronounced fake by some "experts" who have already certified the authenticity of the copies. We then watch as the monster destroys the treasures, thinking them to be worthless. Meanwhile, the copies are hung in a gallery in the United States, where we see experts lecturing to their students about their irreproducible genius. Visiting New York later in the film, the forger, his works now hanging forever among the world's masterpieces, can't resist the temptation to eavesdrop on a professor who holds court in the museum and heaps lavish praise upon a painter, little suspecting his true identity, let alone his immediate presence.

Of course, in a sensible world, a hypothetically perfect copy of a Cezanne is just as beautiful, and therefore has in a certain sense just as much intrinsic worth as the original. It doesn't suddenly become less beautiful when someone pronounces it a copy, rather merely less original. In our world, which is perhaps less than perfectly sensible, the entire value of a creation rests not on its beauty, but on its originality. Should this be so? I don't know. Perhaps. But it is an interesting subject to discuss. I would be just as pleased to have a perfect copy of a Cezanne hang in my salon as I would be to have the original. On the other hand, I am not the right person to ask about this matter. I don't have a salon, and if I did, I would not hang a delicately blue Cezanne there because it would clash with my poster of Hulk Hogan in his canary yellow trunks.

At any rate, to cut to the chase, this film is cut from truly superior cloth, but it resulted in an average suit.

I place the primary blame for this squarely on the silly romantic triangle soap opera. The art forger is still in love with his wife, who is now living in a bigamous marriage with an over-the-top maniac who made a fortune in the condom business. Her new husband is the same nouveau riche ass who bought the beautiful original Cezanne at a bargain price, then destroyed it when incorrectly informed it was not authentic.

These two men engage in duels and various other battles of physical and mental strength, competing for the woman like two starving wolves with a single bone. It is really not apparent to us why she is worth fighting for. She is beautiful, to be sure, but she is also superficial, cruel, alcoholic and seems to be half-mad. She comes close to Hemingway's own portrayal of Zelda Fitzgerald. Although I admire Linda Fiorentino's unique beauty and talent, I pretty much hated every scene that involved the bigamous wife or the over-the-top condom king.


Linda Fiorentino shows breasts, buns and very brief bush in two sex scenes, both involving a bath tub.

Keith Carradine also shows his butt.

There is also anonymous nudity in a cafe, and anonymous full-frontal male and female nudity in a street scene.

The second source of blame seems to be the offbeat portrayal of Hemingway himself. Real or imagined, he seems to be everywhere in Paris. The forger paints in his studio - Hemingway is in the next room with two hookers. The forger and his friend watch a funeral from a taxi  - Hemingway observes and pontificates. They go from the funeral to the train station - Hemingway is already there, standing near the gate with pithy observations. They fly immediately to New York - Hemingway is right behind them at the Museum of Modern Art. Hemingway is omnipresent. I understand the metaphorical truth of what they were trying to achieve here. It was Hemingway's spirit that dominated the age, and it was his well-worn swizzle stick that stirred the movie's drink. He was there observing everything because the story was based on his observations. I get it. But the filmmakers needed to find a subtler, less obtrusive way to make this point.

Hemingway's character traits might also have been fleshed out better. As it stands, in addition to being ubiquitous, he is a dense, overly sentimental, constantly drunken man who can never seem to form a complete thought, let alone a complete sentence. I read somewhere that they expanded the Hemingway role from a three sentence walk-on when they became enamored of the characterization. Frankly, they became far too enchanted by it. If Hemingway had behaved this way for three sentences, we would have thought, "I get it. He was so drunk that his brain was paralyzed. Hemingway was a young, naive man, no stranger to hootch, and undoubtedly had plenty of moments like that." Such a portrayal would have been credible. What was not credible was to picture Hemingway as nothing more than a stupid, inarticulate, lush. He had those attributes within his range of behavior, as have many of us, but he was a complicated man, and it is not fair to let those characteristics stand as his complete definition.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85

Perhaps the fact that he was ubiquitous was supposed to combine with the offbeat portrayal to create a howlingly funny concept.

If so, the joke was over and all the laughs, if any, were recorded long before they stopped talking. 

Additional thoughts:

1. I know that I can get persnickety about some unimportant details, but I found it very irksome that nobody in the film could pronounce Modigliani's name correctly - not even once. I find that hard to believe of these particular characters, given that they:

  • were interested in art, created art, studied art, dealt art, sometimes even taught art.
  • were specifically interested in Modligiani's art.
  • probably knew Modigliani personally. (Modigliani died in Paris in 1920, aged only 36. This story begins in Paris about a year later, and concerns people of the same generation.)

I don't think it is that important for everyone to know how to pronounce Modligiani's name, but if I were going to write a movie in which a Modigliani painting would be featured, and which would require Modigliani's name to be pronounced multiple times by art experts and people who knew him personally, I would look the sumbitch up!

For the record, it is pronounced "mo-deel-YA-nee" or it can be Anglicized to five syllables in "mo-de-lee-YA-nee", but under no circumstances does it have a "g" sound. The Italian "gl" is a separate sound from an individual "g" and an individual "l". I suppose you can best relate to it through the famous opera character, Pagliacci, a word which has the same "glia" combination, and has no "g" sound. The "glia" is pronounced "lya"

The phonetic/orthographic relationship of the Italian "gl" can be considered comparable to the English "ch", which is not a combination of a "c" and an "h", but represents a completely separate sound.


2. I'm all in favor of an occasional bit of esoterica, but puns in a foreign language are a bit too recondite for my blood. The character played by Wallace Shawn, which was loosely based on Ernest Hemingway's journalist pal Bill Bird of the Trib, was self-named l'Oiseau. (The bird, get it?). That's Pun  1, which requires us to understand some French AND to know about Bill Bird, who wasn't really very famous. But pun number 2 is more complicated than that - the art forger keeps calling him "oisif" instead of "oiseau", and he keeps responding "don't call me oisif". I know the basic words in French, but I don't speak the language, so I didn't get this one at all. I looked it up - "oisif" is the French word for "idler".

Whether we are discussing the writers or the characters, making French puns seems to me to be a bit pretentious for guys who pronounce "Modigliani" with a "g".

And, guys, the movie is in English, OK? Maybe we could save foreign language puns for either (a) that foreign language or (b) the crossword in the Sunday Times


3. Just for the record, director Alan Rudolph has been around long enough to have 16 films with a score at IMDb. The Moderns is rated as one of his best. He has been directing films for 25 years, although he has never had a breakthrough success either with critics or at the box office. The two most recent films on the list, Trixie and Breakfast of Champions, were failures. Breakfast of Champions grossed $175,000 on a $12 million budget, and received 77% negative reviews, according to RT. Trixie received a similar 71% negative reviews, and grossed $285,000. Despite these back-to-back disasters, Rudolph continues to find producers for his projects, and has more in the pipeline.

  1. (6.57) - Choose Me (1984)
  2. (6.26) - Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
  3. (6.16) - Afterglow (1997)
  4. (6.08) - Moderns, The (1988)
  5. (5.79) - Mortal Thoughts (1991)
  6. (5.74) - Love at Large (1990)
  7. (5.73) - Trouble in Mind (1985)
  8. (5.68) - Made in Heaven (1987)
  9. (5.63) - Remember My Name (1978)
  10. (5.51) - Songwriter (1984)
  11. (5.51) - Endangered Species (1982)
  12. (5.51) - Equinox (1992)
  13. (5.37) - Welcome to L.A. (1977)
  14. (4.55) - Trixie (2000)
  15. (4.41) - Roadie (1980)
  16. (4.06) - Breakfast of Champions (1999)


The Moderns (1988) is billed as a drama by IMDB, but I see it as more of a comedy. It is set in Paris in the 1920's, among the "lost generation." In fact, minor characters include Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, although names are all they have in common with the real members of the lost generation. The story concerns a painter who is commissioned to paint three forgeries for a woman who is leaving her husband, and wishes to keep the originals. The Cezanne he is to copy are thought to be impossible to forge, but he does it. Unfortunately, the husband dies, and his customer welches on the money. When he refuses to give her back the originals, she breaks into his studio to get them, but steals the fakes by mistake. He then decides to sell the originals to none other than his wife's husband.

What, you say?

Well, Linda Fiorentino is married to a rather obnoxious art collector who made his money in condoms, but she never bothered divorcing her previous husband, the artist (Keith Carradine). Way too much screen time is taken up in this art scam, which was far less interesting than the period it was set in.

The scene that bothered me most was near the end, as Carradine and his close friend Wallace Shawn, a gossip columnist, are about to head back to America. Hemingway is spouting one-liners to amuse himself, and says "Paris is a transportable banquet." Someone turns to him and says, work on that. I think you have something there. I felt like I was watching Mr. Peabody and the "wayback machine" from Rocky and Bullwinkle. It was alluding, of course, to Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast", a non-fictional memoir of the precise times and people covered in this movie. Clearly, this was their idea of humor, and the film was full of it. Stein was portrayed as a bitter egotist, and Toklas as her mindless gopher, while Hemingway was a whining drunk, and not very bright.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it grossed $2 million in the USA
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Tuna says, "C. It was beautifully shot, but a rather tedious watch for me at 126 minutes. If it is your kind of film, you will probably like it." Scoopy says "C. Great look and great score. Great backdrop of famous characters. Great premise. Satisfactory plot about art forgery. All of which really got ruined by the obnoxious and unromantic romantic triangle and the heavy-handed use of Hemingway's presence. Still a good film, all in all."

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