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Moulin Rouge and the Disneyfication of the Avant GardeAt best Moulin Rouge is a lot of fun. At worst it represents the erasure of history. Moulin Rouge is set in the Paris of 1900–at least ostensibly it is. The actual Paris of 1900 is the Paris of Satie, the Paris of Ravel, of Debussy. The actual Paris of 1900 is the Paris of Matisse, and at least for part of the year, the Paris of Picasso.

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This is very fertile ground for a love story, a musical, anything, really. Puccini found it good enough for La boheme, after all. What we get in Moulin Rouge, though, is a Paris of 1900 filtered through the myopia of late 20th Century pop culture, especially pop music. We get an anachronistic melange of Madonna and Elton John, of Nirvana and Olivia Newton John.

In other words, it isn’t the Paris of 1900. It isn’t even close.

Granted, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec shows up as a supporting character and there is, in the film, a nightclub called Moulin Rouge from which the film cribs its title. But other than that, and the ubiquitous absinthe, there’s not much Parisy about Moulin Rouge the movie, much less Paris, 1900. The character of Toulouse-Lautrec speaks vaguely of the “Bohemian Revolution” but only long enough for the film to make fun of it, and never in enough detail for either a credible manifesto or a credible satire. And, of course, it has to be advocated by Toulouse-Lautrec because Hollywood still thinks dwarves are funny, especially dwarves with lisps.

So why does so little of the real Paris of 1900 appear in this film? I have my suspicions that to use, say the music of Erik Satie, would have been too “challenging” for contemporary audiences. It may have been deemed out of the target demographic of the film, probably “indie” movie buffs in the 19-30 range whose introduction to the avant-garde was Trainspotting. A movie about a writer in Paris that actually dealt with other writers who were really there, other artists who didn’t have the luck to be born lisping dwarves, would never have been made. I mean, who would go to see it? Old people?

The problem, of course, with always making things people can “relate” to, is that in constantly recycling what we know, we fail to ever learn or be challenged by anything new, even if that thing, new to our experience, is past history.

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