Film * Woody Allen * Modernism Nostalgia * 2011
Before I do anything, let me pre-emptively answer the obvious question: why on earth is there a Woody Allen movie being featured on a blog dedicated to apocalyptic fiction? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s my (probably tortured and convoluted) reasoning. Most importantly, I use word ‘apocalypse’ as more of a literary term than a literal one. What I’m interested in is less depictions of mass destruction or dystopian nightmares (although those are obviously super fun) and more the human and social impulses behind the creation and consumption of such stories. Good apocalyptic fiction is an insight into the anxieties and hopes of a contemporary civilization. Yet those anxieties and hopes (and fear, and mania, and existential dread) change from era to era. As a student of Modernism, my focus has always been on the pressures and general anxiety of a rapidly growing society. These feelings were exacerbated by World War I, of course, but were also amplified by a world felt to be evolving beyond human comprehension at amazing speed. The Moderns were at the forefront of artistic expression dealing with this unprecedented run of human progress. If you consider this progress to be a transformative event – and it’s hard to argue otherwise – then the world made anew is essentially a post-apocalypse. The Moderns, then, were dealing with a host of complicated emotions and thoughts that were all connected with a new world order created out of the ashes of an old, bygone age. Therefore, anything concerning the Moderns is fair game. Including this Woody Allen movie.
True story: this is the first Woody Allen film I’ve ever watched in its entirety. I don’t watch a lot of movies, and the man has always sort of bugged me. Even beyond his shady personal biz, I’m just not a fan of the neurotic, frantic dialogue that seemingly makes up the majority of his work. Whatever, though, because the promise of this particular film is that I get to geek out over all my Modernist heroes on screen. The story is very simple. Gil (an unfortunate name because I can only ever think of this guy), played by goofily affable Owen Wilson, is a wealthy, successful script writer. He’s on vacation in Paris with his horrible fiancé, and is attempting to finish a novel so he can stop being a Hollywood hack and feel good about his art. The horrible fiancé just wants that fat movie check, and could give a shit about his artistic aspirations. Meanwhile, Gil is wispily dreaming about Paris in the 1920s and how life was so much better when people like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were running around. Then, true to the title, Gil gets lost in Paris and when midnight rolls around a vintage car rolls up and invites him to a party. He goes, and promptly meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
I will confess a certain, incredibly subjective disappointment that this film focuses mainly on the American expatriates and Parisian artists. There are almost no references made to my British homies. Ezra Pound is nowhere to be seen, nor is James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or my boy Aldous Huxley. T.S. Eliot shows up for like three seconds and Gil makes a “Prufrock” quip. That’s a pretty specific complaint, I suppose (and yes, Pound was technically American, as was Eliot until he became a British citizen). I don’t think I’ve ever criticized a movie for not having enough T.S. Eliot in it. Besides, what is here is pretty fun. Obviously Hemingway didn’t talk like that (he was certainly too drunk most of the time), and Zelda Fitzgerald was a little on the nose, and Dali probably wasn’t such a goofball in public. Whatever, though. I truly appreciate a film that takes the time to revive important figures like these and also manages to have a good time with them. Because come on, if the Moderns could do one thing well besides write and paint, it was party.
I’m of two minds about this film. On the one hand, it’s always a good time to be able to point at the screen and go “oh, I get that reference!” On the other hand, there needs to be something more than a somewhat accurate depiction of an era to be truly engaging. I feel that Midnight in Paris falters when it comes to its story, largely because everything feels superficial. Firstly, it is difficult to really relate to Gil in any meaningful fashion. He’s a rich, successful film writer who is bummed out because he’s having trouble writing a novel. Okay. Oh, and his beautiful and wealthy wife is a terrible person. They have fights in their bajillion dollar hotel while vacationing in Paris for weeks on end. At the end of the movie Gil hooks up with a hot French girl he manages to pick up effortlessly despite being an awkward goof.
Look, it’s fine. The movie obviously isn’t going for realism here. It’s a whimsical tale of magic-with-a-moral. Paris is the true star of the film, which is clear from the outset considering the opening consists of a tourism reel of all your favorite Paris landmarks. The city is shown in its best light here, and that’s in service to the whimsy and a concession to the nostalgic idealism of Gil. As annoying as it might be to look at the images and compare them to my own personal experience with Paris, I recognize that what Paris actually looks (and sounds and smells) like has no place here. It’s the setting for a fairy tale. Likewise, it doesn’t really matter that Gil acclimates immediately to the fact that time travel is a thing and fits right in with the other expats. All of this fits the style that Allen was going for here. It’s just that this kind of story isn’t particularly fulfilling. There’s just not a lot of depth beyond the main point of the film.
The moral of the story is: nostalgia isn’t real. There, that’s it. Nostalgia is just a hazy, idealized version of the past created to distract people from the present. It takes Gil a while to understand this because at first he’s just stoked to be going back in time to have Gertrude Stein critique his novel (which is totally understandable). Eventually, he falls for the hot mistress of Pablo Picasso and eventually wins her heart (hey, it’s okay, because his terrible fiancé is out banging an insufferable dickweed the whole time). Then they slip further back in time and Adriana decides that actually the 1890’s are the hot time to be alive, and the 20’s are boring and lame. Gil has an epiphany, and returns to his own time, where he promptly dumps his fiancé and moves to Paris. The insight, of course, is that every era is someone else’s golden age, even as our own times will seem romantic to those in the future. It’s like, perception, man.
It’s difficult to go after this movie too hard. After all, it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (really? Was it a slow year?) and was nominated for Best Director (okay?) and Best Picture (oh now come on). It isn’t trying to do anything other than celebrate a bunch of great artists. It does so in a whimsical, nostalgic way which doesn’t so much as undercut the film’s message as it highlights what a light and breezy story it is telling. If anything, the film is a triumph of the superficial. The Moderns were profoundly damaged people pushing against an old society and reveling in the new. They lived in harsh, filthy times but managed to find their own light, even if only for a little while. This film whisks all of that to the side in order to present a sort of living history snapshot of a romanticized Paris. And that’s great. It was fun, even if there isn’t much in the way of insight into either the Moderns or their influence.