The iPhone turns 15 next year, which means the first article on how smartphones are changing the way humans interact with culture will turn 15 and a half. Countless pixels have been spilled about how the internet and screen-based tech is sapping our attention span, how apps are rewiring our brain to demand constant stimulation, how TikTok-addled kids don’t have the patience to sit through a whole movie.
These articles are often well-researched and backed by frightening and convincing data. And yet, rewatching An American in Paris, I felt like maybe we’ve been giving the 20th-century American moviegoer’s attention span a little too much credit. If apps like TikTok or Instagram are about boiling entertainment down to a series of digestible “moments” that provide entertainment without the need for any context, then An American in Paris is a film for the TikTok generation. This classic 1951 musical is comprised of almost nothing but moments, and seems to harbor a veiled contempt for whatever connective tissue it is forced to use in between them.
Is this a criticism of the movie? I suppose in comparison to other works featuring the talents of Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and George and Ira Gershwin, it is. All of those people have blended substance into their style more successfully elsewhere.
But what style! Look at those names: one of the great musical directors, one of the great musical actresses in her film debut, the greatest musical film actor, and arguably the greatest composer America has ever produced. Go further down the list, and you see even more names: Oscar Levant was a celebrated concert pianist, Georges Guétary a famous French cabaret singer, and Nina Foch an accomplished Shakespearean actress. In classic showman fashion, all of them get a few minutes to take the spotlight and show off their stuff.
The disconnectedness of An American in Paris is somewhat by design: the movie is an adaptation of a 1928 composition from George Gershwin, which forms the basis of his score, and several of the songs are retreads that had already been featured in other movies. The whole production is informed by a classic Hollywood producer move: get our best stuff, and let the best people in the business put it together. As is true of many things in Hollywood, it’s a classic because it works.
The story is consequently basic, a clothesline on which to hang the songs and visuals. Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American who went to France during WWII and decided to stay. Caron plays Lise Bouvier, a French woman who should be with him. Guétary and Foch play the people they are with instead. Oscar Levant plays the guy who lives down the hall from Jerry and occasionally lets Jerry come over and dance shirtless on his piano. (Also, Guétary and Kelly have a musical number in which Kelly dresses as a woman, and they dance and kiss. I am shocked, shocked to learn that Vincente Minnelli was rumored to be in the closet.)
Of course Kelly and Caron meet in unpromising circumstances, of course he must win her over, and of course they must both withhold exactly enough information from each other to create a misunderstanding that is trivial enough to be resolved within one act. As I hinted earlier, I don’t find any of this particularly convincing, and it’s a little weird how Jerry’s passion for his work seems to ebb and flow as the plot requires. But I have to admit, on a primordial, lizard-brain level, it just works.
The fundamental truth of An American in Paris is that being an ex-G.I. who falls in love with 1940s Paris and gets a small apartment on the Left Bank where you can paint and dance with girls in nightclubs (and presumably make a distinct impression on a young Jacques Demy) just seems really cool, the absolute best. And then you meet the wrong woman but it helps you understand what you value, and then you see this incomparably beautiful woman and fall in love and say and do all the wrong things, but you’re young and in Paris and the war is over and wine is cheap, and by some blessed miracle she starts to laugh. And you keep your secrets from each other, but you’re in love, and she runs away but you’re in love, and so she returns, but you’re in love, and it’s wonderful, it’s marvelous, that she should care for you, and besides you’re in love, and that’s enough for it to all to work out.
Because being in love, outside the dark of the theater, the music and the costumes and the swooping camera, isn’t this fun. It’s better, or at least deeper, more intense. But it hurts, like it hurts when you grow, like it hurts when an injury mends. There are physiological phenomena, in my experience, similar to heartburn and vomiting, particularly in the first stages of infatuation. It’s this involuntary emotional spasm you can’t control, a hiccup of the serotonin receptors that contains desire and obsession and above all fear, because what if the feeling isn’t returned? And so you think about them, maybe even dream about them, and are expected to ask them out like a normal person while some vital part of your nervous system seems to be tearing itself loose from your body in order to somehow get to them, be of them.
And if you can even get to that point, it generally doesn’t work out, either because you’re too nervous and ruin it or because they just don’t have the same feeling and don’t know what to do when they receive it. And so you’re left, alone again, holding what seems like the biggest feeling you will ever have with nowhere to put it.
There are movies that understand this. An American in Paris is not one of them, no, not even in the ballet sequence. But it does understand what all those TikTok videos understand: that the entertainment we watch doesn’t always need to meet us at our deepest place, that if all art shook us loose from our moorings, before long our teeth would start to rattle. Sometimes art tells us a comforting lie, like “it will all work out,” or “it’s always worth it to follow your heart,” and sometimes that lie is what we need to hear. If the result lacks passion, well, look up the Latin root of “passion.” Or better yet, look at the dancing.
– Much can be and has been written about Kelly’s appealing looseness, his dance chemistry with Caron, his, uh . . . personal attributes, but it was Minnelli’s direction that stood out when I watched the film this time. Some directors are just great at choosing where to place a camera, and at deciding when and how to move it.
– The long psychedelic ballet at the end is the glaring exception to my theory that this movie essentially has TikTok brain: it’s arty, it’s obtuse, it’s set to Gershwin’s original composition. And yet, the movie places it right before the romantic arc is resolved, so audiences have to sit through it if they want to see the lovers reunite. Devilishly clever sequencing.
– Henri Baurel, Kelly’s romantic rival, seems to be modeled on Fred Astaire: he enters the movie singing “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” a song the Gershwins wrote for him, and his big musical number is performed in top hat, white tie, and tails. Unsure if this is an homage, an in-joke, a coincidence, or if Minnelli just couldn’t get Astaire for the part.
– It’s fun to think of the SEO-friendly headlines that would accompany the various musical numbers if they were viral videos (“Heartwarming: This American Expatriate Uses Dance Moves and Bubblegum to Teach English to Impoverished Children.”)
– The way moviegoers consumed An American in Paris may not have been all that different from a distracted teen scrolling through videos. The American film-watching experience of sitting in respectful silence for over two hours in a theater, everyone fully focused on the screen, was a transitory phenomenon confined to a small sliver of the late 20th century, and only ever occurred in a minority of theaters. Many people would have seen An American in Paris in a continuous-run theater, where people were constantly walking in and out, talking in the aisles, and the movie would run reel-to-reel, interspersed with newsreels and a “B” feature.