A scintillating documentary emerges from the cacophony of reruns and reality TV Wednesday night. Paris the Luminous Years - Toward the Making of the Modern looks carefully and insightfully at a key crossroads in the history of art.

Rick and Ilsa always had Paris in Casablanca. Perry Miller Adato's film demonstrates why the world will forever be grateful for the city, as well.

Airing at 9 p.m. on WHYY-TV12, the two-hour film takes us to a critical time and place in cultural history, where artists of all stripes from many countries came together to explode earlier traditions in painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, music, and dance.

Adato's archival assemblage takes us on a tour of the city from 1905 to 1930, touching on seminal works ranging from Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon to Joyce's Ulysses to the Stravinsky-Nijinsky ballet The Rite of Spring. Many of the guides are the artists from the era and their collaborators, captured in filmed interviews years ago.

The lineup is impressive. It's riveting to listen to such giants as Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Marc Chagall, and Marcel Duchamp discuss the times and their work.

Also amusing.

Jean Cocteau recalls the grousing of a gentleman who had come to see the strikingly avant-garde Ballets Russes production of Parade (sets and costumes by Picasso, music by Eric Satie, scenario by Cocteau, program notes by Guillaume Apollinaire) in 1917: " 'If I had known that it was so silly, I would have brought my children.' "

"It was a big compliment," Cocteau says.

Even more instructive are the comments by the artists' supporters, dealers, publishers, and chroniclers.

D.H. Kahnweiler recalls the first time a raggedy Picasso came into his gallery, looked around without saying a word, but with piercing eyes that stopped the dealer cold, and left. Kahnweiler tracked the starving artist back to Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, where Picasso kept his home and studio, and a great partnership was born.

Montmartre in the first decade of the 20th century was a rural district where prices were low. Bateau-Lavoir ("washerwoman's boat," a name purportedly bestowed on a rundown assortment of shacks and shanties by poet Max Jacob) was, at various times before World War I, the home of Picasso, Jacob, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Gertrude Stein.

Sylvia Beach, who owned and ran the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, recalls how she met James Joyce and subsequently published Ulysses when everyone else in the world was afraid of its strangeness and sexuality. It was a difficult alliance, narrator Concetta Tomei explains. After type was set, Joyce scrawled 90,000 more words on the proofs, and they had to start all over again.

Shakespeare and Company was the rendezvous in the '20s for such English-speaking authors as Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Stein, who seemed to be sort of the mother superior of the entire artistic epoch.

Contemporary commentators also speak with energy and authority in The Luminous Years. "How do you define art?" the New Yorker's Calvin Tompkins asks rhetorically. "People used to think they knew. After Duchamp, nobody's sure."

Adato herself is a celebrated artist of arts documentaries, with Directors Guild and Emmy awards on her mantel for works on Georgia O'Keeffe, Dylan Thomas, and Mary Cassatt, among others. She combines contemporary Paris scenes with ones from the olden days, as the transportation transforms from horses to motor vehicles.

The movie contains hundreds of images of artworks, and some of the re-stagings of dance segments will be as jaw-dropping to those unfamiliar with them today as they were when the ballets were originally performed nearly 100 years ago.

The Luminous Years is luminous itself, a fascinating look that will leave almost everyone who watches it with a better understanding and appreciation of modern art than they had before they started.

From Dancing With the Stars to Law & Order: SVU, there's so much guilt in TV-watching these days. Here's a chance to spend two hours with the tube and emerge feeling much better about yourself.

Jonathan Storm:


Paris the Luminous Years

9 p.m. Wednesday on WHYY-TV12