The dangers of nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

See my other open letters to Woody Allen in my zine, Letters to Mr. Konigsberg, available here.

Spoilers follow.

Dear Woody,

Every now and then, just to amuse yourself and maybe us, too, you dip into the magical realist well: Alice, Shadows and Fog, The Purple Rose of Cairo, , The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Everyone Says I Love You (well, the last, glorious and graceful dance duet between you and Goldie Hawn, anyway), the “Oedipus Wrecks” short from New York Stories. Here, let’s distinguish from the raw slapstick of your early years—Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Sleeper, with a lovely, careening later assist from Zelig—which hew closer to the one-damn-thing-after-another logic of silent comedy and your 1960s standup bits. I’m talking about the ones where the realistic relationships and the travails of city life are smudged with the fantastical.

At your best in this genre, as in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Everyone Says I Love You, the magical and the quotidian fuse perfectly because you don’t draw undue attention to the strangeness of the former. You just, say, make a movie character step off the movie screen into real life, and don’t bother to over-explain how or why it happened, and you don’t light or compose the shots in a fancy way to italicize how twee and magical it is. It’s like you’re shrugging: “Look, these things happen. Now let’s move on to what it means for the characters.” You understand, as do Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gilbert Hernandez, that nonchalance serves the conceit better than over-emphasis, and that we accept the conditions you’ve established if you just play it straight.

Unfortunately, you don’t often play this straight. Though these films tend to be cast in a lovely, humming glow, and it’s no surprise that Jade Scorpion and Purple Rose are set in a mythologized past, they seem more like undergrad thesis exercises than heartfelt explorations that relate to a world in which we actually live. The dialogue is purely expository, with the occasional one-liner just to prove to us that you can still make a joke. The actors often seem like chess pieces—poor Mia Farrow in Alice just looks lost, as if she doesn’t understand the character she’s supposed to play. All the cameos in Shadows and Fog add up to nothing but establishing that you’ve got famous friends. You try out visual flourishes and stylistic excess to pad the running time. You think through the high concept but neglect to define the characters that must flesh it out. Sometimes, it’s just that the concept is too slight to sustain a 90-minute movie, and probably should have been, instead, a humor piece for The New Yorker.

Other times, as in the new Midnight in Paris, you haven’t quite thought it through enough. At least you were up to something promising: a self-critique. There’s no question that, as far as you’re concerned, popular culture ceased being notable around 1940, just shortly after you were born. I can’t think of a piece of music post-1950 that was used un-ironically in one of your features. Your period pieces—and there’s been a surprising number of them, considering your small budgets—all harken back to the 1920s and 1930s. You’ve played New Orleans stomp and “moldy fig” jazz with a band since the 1970s. In your work, you allude to lots of literature but I can’t think of any, off-hand, that was written post-1970. You’ve even said all this yourself in countless interviews. You’re a nostalgic at heart, no matter that the romantic relationships you present are more modernly messy than those of the screwball comedies and Bob Hope pictures you love.

So, it’s rather refreshing that Midnight in Paris, with Owen Wilson in the “Woody” role, seems to be openly anti-nostalgic. Wilson, as Gil Pender, is a Hollywood hack who dreams of being a “real” writer, and who wishes that he lived in Paris during the 1920s. Of course, he doesn’t want the real Paris: impoverished just after World War I; when the term “starving artist” wasn’t a metaphor but a standard of living; when STDs were rampant; when thousands of war widows and walking wounded struggled to stay solvent; and the “hot” jazz and flapper fashion provided poor cover for the moral/cultural/religious exhaustion that was nimbly conveyed in The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. No, no. Gil wants the postcard Paris, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso all hung out together in one decade-long bender, dancing along with Josephine Baker. And if you point out, at any given time, half of those people hated the other half, well, Gil doesn’t want to hear about it. To over-emphasize the point, the movie starts with a series of postcardy shots of modern Paris, set to a Sidney Bechet song. (The shots move cleanly from morning to night, in a bravura move through time that almost makes up for the banality of the imagery.)

Worried about his novel-in-progress, in an unhappy relationship with Inez (Rachel McAdams), besieged by her conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and with a blowhard intellectual (Michael Sheen, as Paul Gates) horning in on Inez, Gil’s got reason to resent the present. Don’t we all? So, he retreats, literally, into what he thinks of as culture’s Golden Age. Every night at midnight, at one spot in Paris, Gil discovers he can catch a cab that slides smoothly into 1927 or so. (The Sun Also Rises has been published, as Hemingway himself says, but the exact date is otherwise unclear.) Every night, he ditches the folks he’s vacationing with, and instead hobnobs with the likes of Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, and Salvador Dali at their creative peaks and/or early in their careers. He falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who serves as a muse for Picasso, Modigliani, Miro, and every other post-Impressionist painter making (slow) headway during the decade.

Each night becomes a cultural paradise which is set apart even more by Gil’s mounting present-day problems. In short, 1920s Paris is exactly as awesome as Gil imagines it would be. And, Woody, that’s the problem with this movie.

Obviously, this Golden-Age Paris has to initially broadcast a strong appeal to Gil and to your audience; otherwise, we’re not convinced by his growing addiction to these midnight rambles. You do that well, though not thrillingly. Darius Khondji’s photography is pretty but the night sequences aren’t any more dazzling than the daytime of 2010, and the compositions are curiously flat. I kept waiting for 1920s Paris to knock me off my feet, visually, but I only get Gil’s incessant prattle about how great it all is. (One example of this over-talk: One night, Gil steps into the 1920s taxi as a fellow passenger introduces himself as “Tom Eliot.” Now, for any literate viewer, that’s all we need. But you and Gil can’t help yourselves. The dialogue continues: “Tom Eliot?! As in, Thomas Stearns Eliot?! As in, T.S. Eliot?!” The incredulity and over-explanation kills what was initially a good, quick joke.) We get the CliffsNotes versions of every famous artist and writer who stepped on the Left Bank in 1927. Fine, all to the good, but all they exist as is as cameos to show how literate you are. They are sketches, not characters. Hemingway speaks exactly as he writes but you miss the opportunity to show that Hemingway’s endless pronouncements aren’t much different than Paul’s pedantic lectures to his friends. You never separate, visually or verbally, the famous myths and the often harsh realities of the 1920s from each other.

When Adriana is given the opportunity to go back to her Golden Age, she heads straight to the fin-de-siecle Paris of Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Victor Hugo. It’s a good joke that Gil’s less impressed with this age, no matter how wonderful, and that this is what breaks the budding couple apart. But Gil’s realization—that everyone thinks of the present as unsatisfying, that everyone yearns for a Golden Age that never really existed—doesn’t resonate, in part because you never let us see beneath Gil’s dream of Paris in the ’20s. We don’t see enough chinks in Gil’s armor for his revelation to make sense within the context of the film. Because 1920s Paris looks roughly like 2010 Paris here—cute but with lazy, nondescript lighting; I’ve never missed Carlo Di Palma’s earth tones and natural, almost candlelit lighting schemes more—the decisions Gil makes at the end don’t feel earned. This is the rare magical realist adventure in which you needed to make clearer distinctions between myth and reality.

As I watched Midnight in Paris, I kept thinking about my own Golden Ages: late-1960s/early-1970s Chicago, when the Black Arts Movement and electric blues are gaining inroads, and Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, and Roger Ebert are starting their careers; or early 1960s Memphis, when Stax/Volt was reshaping American culture. But I kept thinking about the inherent problems of my wish-fulfillment fantasy—the entrenched racism, the cultural provincialism, the incessant poverty of the performers—and kept wishing Gil would do (or at least see) the same complexities. Richard Wright was part of the same circle of Gertrude Stein’s friends during this era; where is he and his perspective in this film? Midnight in Paris is bookended by a Sidney Bechet, who emigrated to Paris, in part, to escape American racism and who never quite found the peace he sought in France; where is he?

Yes, the film has to start with this idealized vision of Paris. For it to be an effective argument against nostalgia, though, Midnight in Paris has to show—not just babble flatly about—how the real times differed from, and complicated, this ideal. You don’t do that, just as your New York is rarely shown as less than ideal, less than scrubbed clean. So, the movie becomes an anti-nostalgia tract that is most effective as an act of nostalgia.

All the same, there are the small joys that you can always give us, mostly from actors. Owen Wilson is a deadpan delight as Midnight‘s protagonist. The movie is worth the price of admission for a single scene between Gil, Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Buñuel, and Man Ray, which is the funniest five minutes I’ve seen in a year. Michael Sheen plays a pedantic intellectual so perfectly that the audience actively hissed his every utterance, and yet he’s believably attractive enough to woo Inez. The joke in which Gil explains the plot for Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel—and Buñuel doesn’t understand the premise—is brilliant.

If you had spent this much effort on establishing a real Paris, with a honest sense of its history and mistakes, Midnight in Paris would have been a warm, emotional, heartbreaking comedy, instead of just another arid exercise that you didn’t explore fully.

Ah, well. At least you’re still trying out new ideas.

Better luck next time, and with best wishes,
Walter Biggins

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to The dangers of nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

  1. Howard Kleidman says:

    I second your notion and emotion. Even the musical score, except for Bechet, was out of sync and too repetitious. Perhaps this time Woody thought “Anything Goes”.

  2. It was seeing Adriana indulge in her own nostalgic delusions that make Gil come to his decision.

  3. Woody Fan says:

    I think you’re being way to harsh with Woody and this film. Think about how far he has come since the days of Stardust Memories, that no one liked and no one understood. This is a Woody Allen movie written by the older Woody, not the young jokey smart alec. This was never a comment about the time period, or even the people. It was about each generation of artists thinking that those that came before them had it better. Gil learns the lesson that each generation simply is what it is. He decides to stay in his own time where he is supposed to be. Now my personal thoughts on this ending is that Woody Allen gets to be held in the same category as all of the great artists. In our time, Woody is the Mark Twain, Hemingway, Stein, T.S. Elliot, Cole Porter of our generation. And for that I say, lucky us.

    I’m glad I found your letter to Woody because I really wondered if anyone could write the opposite of good about this entertaining film.

    All the best!

  4. With all the faults state so well by Mr. Biggins I thought of a simple way to look at the whole thing that brings it together: think of Owen as a Walter Mitty who at the end of the story has grown emotionally and shrugs off his former self (and in this case that annoying future wife) and takes charge of his life. He finds someone who doesn’t mind the rain. Not a small thing here. He has a match of sorts which he did not have with either his fiance of even Adriana. The meaning to the story of his deceptively simple ending could be missed easily. But you cannot deny the satisfying feeling you come away with because of finding a friend, albeit an attractive female who seems interested in Gil. The point is Gil is accepting a real Paris, a real, new friend, and has cut away the reality of a lousy relationship. Emotional growth for Gil (Mitty).

    This story is, for me, as tight and full of pieces that hang together the way they do in short fiction.
    If Woody Allen could get an audience for 30 minute films, you would see his brilliance. But of course to sell the product he mus fill 90 minutes. He’s a shirt story writer. Think Chekhov and you get at where Mr. Allen’s talent lies right now.

  5. D Rowe says:

    humorously, Whilst the film may be anti-nostalgia at surface value, it is also heavily pro-romanticism, thus when the character decides to stay in Paris and follow his heart we can fairly ascertain that it is due to his nostalgia which has delivered him there: His nostalgia has made him realise certain truths about himself, most notable of which that the present is more fruitful than the past (of which your anti-nostalgia argument is based).

    In other words, without his crucial experience of nostalgia and romantic ideals, he would not have found this piece of mind: he would have been another hollywood, unhappily married scribe. Via nostalgia, he realises that he may just be a good writer afterall (in regards to Gertrude Stein’s scenes) just how in real life nostalgia can teach us many things about ourselves: our wants and our wishes crystalised into a form of yearning… understanding and possibly realisation ensues.

    After all of this, i can say that your anti-nostalgia thesis may be correct, but i’d argue only at surface value. Nostalgia delivers Gil to his Ideals. As it can for us…

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