This article originally appeared on Capital New York.
Midnight in Paris opened in May. So far, it has made over $50 million in the United States alone, making it Woody Allen’s biggest box office success. Sony Pictures has decided to re-release the film in 500 theatres, starting today, hoping to cash in even more as the summer blockbuster season wanes. I loved Midnight in Paris, found it pretty profound, not at all “light” fare (but then again, I’m someone who considers Manhattan Murder Mystery to be his masterpiece, which puts me in rare rare and often scorned company). I wrote about the film and this development for Capital New York.
Woody Allen makes, on average, a movie a year. Given such an output, not every movie is going to be a masterpiece, and Allen seems fine with that. There is something to be said for Stanley Kubrick’s or Terrence Malick’s pace, directors who develop projects for sometimes decades, but Allen has always been up to something different. He has his hits, he has his misses (Cassandra’s Dream, anyone?), and he keeps on working.
The slapdash feeling of his late career puzzles people. A film comes out, and people still wonder why it’s not Annie Hall. The professional legacy of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters is impossible to live up to, and Allen’s films are rarely big box-office hits anyway. Which is why the story of his latest, Midnight in Paris is so significant.
Midnight in Paris is Allen’s 41st film. It opened the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and opened in the U.S. in May. Some reviewers reflexively pooh-pooh Allen’s lighter fare. The indispensable James Berardinelli ends his three-star review of the film with,
Words like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘undemanding’ apply to Midnight in Paris, although some may consider that damning with faint praise—especially those who look to Woody Allen to cast a cynical eye on the foibles of a man in love. Allen’s movies often deal with love and sex and, although he often dabbles in nostalgia, rarely does he do so with such unabashed romanticism. Midnight in Paris does not challenge greatness, but it’s a nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes.
Berardinelli captures the high expectations that have dogged Allen’s career, and the vague feeling of disappointment that greets his current projects that don’t seem “important.”
Midnight in Paris has made $50 million dollars in the U.S. alone, and is Woody Allen’s most profitable movie to date, surpassing Hannah and her Sisters. It had a limited original release in America (just 400 theaters), but since the movie is still selling tickets after months of being in circulation, Sony Pictures Classics has decided to re-release it in 500 theatres on August 26. Sony executives hope the film can find its second wind, as the blockbusters move off the screen in preparation for fall. Sony has also been open about its hopes for the film for Oscar season. The summer movie season is filled with robots and 3-D extravaganzas, meaning that movies like Midnight in Paris often get lost in the shuffle. The fact that audiences have made it their business to go see this movie indicates that it is perhaps something more than a “nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes.”
Woody Allen’s films often deal with nostalgia. Radio Days was an elegy for his lost childhood, Broadway Danny Rose was a black-and-white comedy mourning the loss of the old-timey, tough Broadway talent agents and producers in the days of vaudeville. The brilliant Bullets Over Broadway brought us back into the 1920s theater scene in New York City. Even Crimes and Misdemeanors, with its brutal tale of a man who murders his mistress and gets away with it, is a wail of loss for simpler days, before the world turned ruthless.
Nostalgia can be tricky. If you live only in the past, you are a fantasist who imagines things were better back in some mythical Golden Age. But there are also beautiful things in the past, and to forget these things in the rush of modern life means we forget the most valuable parts of ourselves.
This is the landscape Midnight in Paris occupies. The film starts with a voiceover, Gil (Owen Wilson, playing a damn good Allen alter-ego), praising the beauties of Paris, and how much he wants to live there, and how amazing it must have been to live in Paris in the 1920s with all of those great American ex-pat writers. Allen’s not trying to sneak up on us here. He lays the premise out right from the beginning.
Gil is engaged to be married to Inez (Rachel McAdams), who is, to put it mildly, not suitable for him. She barely seems to like him, let alone love him, but she appreciates his status as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and scoffs at his desire to move to Paris and work on his novel. It is not clear if the book Gil has written (about a man who works in a “nostalgia shop”) is any good. But what is clear is his idolization of the writers who gathered in Paris in the 1920s and, through bravado, talent, and sheer force of will, created modern literature. The old forms cracked and fell away in the wake of World War I. Artists attempted to find language appropriate to their shattered world. Painters, composers, novelists, poets, expressed the giant shattering their generation experienced. Many of these writers worked in isolation, but many gathered in Paris. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, H.D. and Amy Lowell congregated at Sylvia Beach’s Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, and worked and fought and drank.
Gil’s enthusiasm for this era is not shared by his fiancée, who treats his romantic outbursts with wary derision. Gil says at one point to Inez and another couple, “I had a professor in college who once was in Paris and he came across James Joyce who was sitting in a café and he was eating sauerkraut and a hot dog.” The group waits to see if there is more to the story, but no, Gil is just amazed at knowing someone who had actually seen James Joyce in the flesh, and how incredible it was that the genius was eating sauerkraut! Sauerkraut, imagine!
In her comic novel The Fiery Pantheon, Nancy Lemann writes, “She had a nostalgia for a life she had never lived.”
This is Gil’s dilemma.
One night, on a drunken, solitary walk back to the hotel, Gil gets lost. He finds himself in an isolated square, and as the clock strikes midnight, a gleaming car pulls up, clearly of 1920s vintage, and a group of laughing people entreat him to join their group. Baffled, he does, and finds himself at a party. Gil is not sure what has happened, but when a charming young couple come up to him and introduce themselves as “Scott and Zelda,” he starts to understand. Not only do these legends make him feel welcome, they introduce him to their wide circle of friends.
Gil meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), T.S. Eliot (David Lowe), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordier), Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van – one of the funniest moments in the movie has Gil giving Buñuel the idea for Exterminating Angel: Gil: “I’ve got an idea for a movie for you. A bunch of people come to a dinner party but when they try to leave … they can’t.” Buñuel: “I don’t get it. Why can’t they leave?”).
Over a series of nights, as Inez grows more and more suspicious, Gil meets up with his friends in the past. Ernest Hemingway suggests Gil give his book to Gertrude Stein to critique. Gil falls in love with a French woman, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has been the lover of every famous painter in town, and she, too, is infected with the nostalgia curse, only she wants to live in Belle Epoque Paris. Nobody is ever satisfied with where they are. Adriana lives in Gil’s Golden Age, but Adriana’s Golden Age is elsewhere.
A strangely hopeful movie (Woody Allen? Hopeful?), it’s really a fairy tale about finding a life appropriate for your spirit and sensibility, and surrounding yourself with a like-minded tribe. It’s best to find other nerds who will gasp in amazement at the image of James Joyce eating sauerkraut. Then you won’t feel so alone in the world.
There’s a deep, powerful keen of longing in Midnight in Paris. One of the most moving aspects of the story is that the ex-pat idols Gil meets not only welcome him into their circle, but validate him and encourage him. It is the ultimate fantasy. A more cynical Woody Allen would have had Gil meet F. Scott Fitzgerald and find him to be an egotistical bore. Ernest Hemingway would have vomited on his shoes, and the statues would have shown their clay feet. But Midnight in Paris is up to something else, something much more redemptive. The idols are not only just how you would imagine them, but they are better. Generous, funny, and open to the interloper amongst them. Silly? Perhaps. But when we “put away childish things” so completely, when we scorn all that is “silly”, we often miss the whole point of life.
At one point, in the present day, the insufferably “pedantic” Paul (Michael Sheen) says to Gil “Nostalgia is denial — denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Woody Allen’s overall response to that is: “Yeah? So?”
What I loved about Midnight in Paris is that it takes the view that nostalgia, so often scorned as childish and unrealistic, is actually the wellspring of art. The very impulse to put something down on paper, capture a moment forever in a photograph or painting, is a nostalgic act. This moment – right now – is important and it is already passing. Proust accessed his memories through the senses, smells and sounds launching him back into a precious past. We all die. This knowledge can be daunting, paralyzing, as Ernest Hemingway says to Gil at one point: “All men fear death. It’s a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel that we haven’t loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same.”
And those idols we have sometimes do hold up a lantern in a dark tunnel showing us the way, if we let them. It is possible for writers today to find inspiration in James Joyce’s increasing blindness, as he tormented himself over commas in Finnegans Wake, and in the lives of Charlotte Brontë, Yeats, Tennessee Williams, and, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These people, flawed and human as they all were (who isn’t?), are also a power source for those who have come after, and Woody Allen comes off as wistful in imagining these encounters between Gil and the great Modernist writers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it would go like this? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
Owen Wilson turns in a funny and very vulnerable performance with that hint of sadness he brings to almost everything he does. You might miss it because of his comedic gifts and lackadaisical-goofball air, but it’s always been there. Even in the silly singing scene in Starsky and Hutch, it’s there. At one point in Midnight in Paris, during a silent walk with the beautiful Adriana, she looks up at him and says, “What is it? Your face is so sad.”
It’s not easy having nostalgia for a life you have never lived.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most nostalgic of writers, ended The Great Gatsby, with the unforgettable line “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Jay Gatsby, a man caught in the past, yet fixated on a future that turns out to be nothing but a phantom, is the dark side of nostalgia, something F. Scott Fitzgerald knew a lot about.
Fitzgerald was a success by the age of 22, and it created in him an expectation that all of life would be a neverending climb to ever-higher heights. (His essay “Early Success” addresses his unique situation.) In his younger years, he had a keen observational eye for what his generation was up to and what they were like. He not only tapped into the zeitgeist, but helped create it and explain it. Scott’s and Zelda’s Jazz Baby shenanigans made them famous, but also burned them out quickly. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44. His final years slogging it out as a screenwriter in Hollywood, tormented by the madness of his wife Zelda and his inability to compete with his earliest books, took its toll (as did his alcoholism). He only wrote five novels.
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and received good reviews, but didn’t sell nearly as well as This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. It would be another nine years before he wrote another novel, Tender Is the Night. It got mixed reviews. Fitzgerald faced the diminishment of his early gleaming reputation. He died in 1940, mostly forgotten. He had been the voice of the “Jazz Age,” long past, a blip on the radar screen of the 20th century. The Great Gatsby was republished after his death, and went on to become one of the most important works of American literature. It’s a classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald died not knowing any of that would happen. He died a broken man, wondering where it all went, what happened to his talent.
In Midnight in Paris, we see him in all his glory, fresh-faced and charmingly polite, eager to please Zelda, a man with a zest for all that life has to offer. His Golden Age was tragically brief. Woody Allen goes for a moral in Midnight in Paris, which is fitting, because it’s a fairy tale. Stay in your own life, accept that you may be living in an age someone else considers to be Golden, and do your best not to miss a second of it.
There may be no “second acts in American lives,” as Fitzgerald put it, and Midnight in Paris isn’t Annie Hall.
But so what?