Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s new movie, Midnight in Paris, is his best since Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s charming, funny and life affirming in a wonderfully whimsical way. The film is a mediation on nostalgia (which I believe is best defined as: “Remembering things the way they never were.”)
A.O. Scott writes in The New York Times:
The definitive poem in English on the subject of cultural nostalgia may be a short verse by Robert Browning called “Memorabilia.” It begins with a gasp of astonishment — “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” — and ends with a shrug: “Well I forget the rest.” Isn’t that always how it goes? The past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present, and then it evaporates with the cold touch of reality. The good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were.
Midnight in Paris is a rare foray in the Power of Idealism territory for a Woody Allen film. It’s a meditation on the power of the past, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and longing vs contentment.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a very successful Hollywood screenwriter who considers himself a hack. His fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), likes the Malibu lifestyle that Gil’s prodigious income affords. The engaged couple is tagging along on her parent’s business trip for a pre-wedding Paris shopping excursion.
Gil longs for more meaningful artistic achievement. He wants to write a serious novel about a man who owns a memorabilia shop. His biggest regret in life is moving to Hollywood when he had the opportunity to live in Paris and become a “real” writer. His fiance thinks he’s crazy.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Idealism character is to be or become unexceptional, mediocre or completely ordinary. A “Hollywood hack” fits this nightmare definition for Gil.
Power of Idealism characters are frequently consumed by what they cannot have or a sense that something important is absent or lost in their lives. This missing something or someone can be the emotionally or physically unavailable love interest, an impossibly high standard of aesthetic or personal excellence or some other perfect, missing something. For Gil, it’s the romance and inspiration of Paris in the 1920’s. If only he could have lived then– everything would have been perfect.
Gil has a magical chance to visit the era he longs for via a 1920’s Peugeot that stops for him as he drunkenly lounges on a stone stairway in a forgotten alleyway. He is whisked off to a party where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein also welcome him, as an aspiring novelist, into their circle.
In his wide-eyed wanderings, Gil meets and falls for the remarkable muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who inspired a whole catalogue of famous artists of the time. Gil is shocked to discover the Adriana has absolutely no appreciation of the “golden age” in which she lives and in which she plays such a vital part. Instead, she longs for the wonderful “Belle Epoque” which she sees as so much more glamorous, romantic and inspiring than her own era.
Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the magic and passion in the small details of their present day life with family and friends and discover transcendence in the mundane moments of living and loving in the here and now. They must find the extraordinary in the ordinary. They must learn to appreciate what they do have instead of longing for what they can never possess.
A.O. Scott puts it another way in discussing Gil meeting “Tom,” the poet who turns out to be TS Elliot:
Unless I’m mistaken, (the poem) “Prufrock” is a statement of the very ennui — the perception of a diminished world unable to satisfy a hungering sensibility — that afflicts Gil. Mr. Allen’s treatment of this condition is gentle and wry. He can hardly be unaware that he himself is, for much of his audience, an object of nostalgic affection, much the way Cole Porter, among others, is for Gil, his alter ego. That a shared love of Porter’s music allows Gil to forge a connection in the present (and conceivably the future) with a young Parisian woman (Léa Seydoux) is a sign that his fetishizing of bygone days has been based on a mistake. Paris is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead but because it is the repository and setting of so much of their work. And the purpose of all that old stuff is not to carry us into the past but rather to animate and enliven the present.