A Teachable Moment
Midnight In Paris
Posted by jennine lanouette on Monday, April 2nd, 2012
Sometimes I think the art history class I took in college was the most important class of my entire college career. It’s because of that brow-wiping “Phew!” feeling I get when in sophisticated company and the name of one or another Impressionist, Cubist, Fauvist, Dadaist or Expressionist painter comes up. In fact, I have come to believe that one can gain far more cultural currency from knowing late 19th to early 20th century European painters than the great artists of any other medium or era.
I think this stems from an implicit assumption: If you haven’t read the complete works of William Faulkner or seen all of Strindberg’s plays or listened to the entire oeuvre of Beethoven’s string quartets, well, that’s understandable. Such works require a considerable investment of time and energy. But if you haven’t even cracked an art history book to look at the color reproductions and learn the names captioned underneath, then what the hell’s wrong with you? Better still, for developing familiarity and fondness, is to sit in a darkened lecture hall and watch a series of slides pop up as a few contextualizing comments emanate from behind a lectern.
That art history class paid off once again, along with a few literature and film classes, while watching Woody Allen’s rumination on nostalgic fantasy, Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender, a “Hollywood hack” as he puts it, gets the art and literature seminar of your dreams when, while visiting Paris with his fiancé, Inez, he is mysteriously transported back to Paris in the 20s and gets to actually hang out with a few post-Impressionist painters, along with their friends the surrealist filmmakers, and a whole gang of ex-pat American writers.
Being female, I’m not much prone to romantic illusions about life being so much better in those earlier, simpler days. Just the thought of being born even ten years earlier than I was makes me shudder. If anything, I wish I could have been a young woman today. Nonetheless, I found Midnight in Paris to be a highly enjoyable film. Having watched it a few times already, I could, still, sit down and watch the whole thing again, an impulse I keep puzzling at since the plot is not exactly intricate, the characters not terribly complex and the overall meaning not particularly deep. So what is it about the film that gives it such appeal?
Here’s what I get from the film in overall meaning: Woody Allen is bemoaning the emphasis these days on unbridled materialism and information trivia, while yearning for an imagined past in which there was genuine concern about the function of art in people’s lives. The present-day intellectual Paul, Inez’s college friend, only spews facts, like a walking Wykipedia. He doesn’t bring any values, insight or context to the topics on which he holds forth.
Listening to Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, every viewpoint he shares is informed by his own experience and every other word out of his mouth is “courage” or “truth”. Gertrude Stein speaks to the problem directly, “We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” If Stein had reason to feel emptiness in the 1920s, it’s hard to imagine how she would see today’s existence.
It is entirely possible that the problem of intellectual vacuity, as represented in Paul’s character, is so pervasive these days that a film need not go deep into it to capture the collective attention. We are all feeling at least a little bit starved by the lack of substance in contemporary discourse and thus can readily share in Woody Allen’s yearning. We don’t need elaboration of the problem. We live it daily. Maybe that’s at the core of the film’s appeal.
So what about Gil Pender’s yearning? He is a successful screenwriter who wants to be a novelist and he is about to marry the wrong woman. From pretty early in the story, we are rooting for him to come to his senses in these matters. By the end he has made the changes we want him to make. He has broken up with Inez and decided to stay in Paris to work on his novel. But how did he get there?
Try as I might, I can’t find an incremental character progression in this film. Throughout the story, Gil is pretty blindered to exactly what is wrong with his life. He doesn’t see that he is being valued by his fiancé and future in-laws for the bushels of money he brings in as a Hollywood hack. He only displays oblivious acceptance while Inez continually disrespects who he is.
Then, at the end, he has a sudden revelation when he enters into the nostalgic fantasy of Adrianna, his 1920’s lover, and travels with her, further back in time, to the Belle Epoque. Being there prompts an insight, albeit “a minor one,” as he says. He tells Adrianna, “If I want to write something worthwhile, I have to get rid of my illusions. That I’d be happier in the past is one of them.” Now he knows his biggest problem in life is not that he was born too late, but that he made a choice to be a screenwriter in Hollywood instead of staying in Paris to write novels as he wanted to.
This is what I call hanging the ending on a magical character transformation that has not really been manifested by the events of the story on the way through. Not that this makes it a bad film. I think it’s a very good film. It just means it falls somewhat short of being a great screenplay. We stay engaged because its fun hanging out with those people, and we enjoy the surprise element of each new historical figure who shows up – like the surprise of Marshall McLuhan stepping out from behind a movie theater display.
Speaking of Annie Hall, I keep thinking about how much more chest-baring honesty there was in that film. At the outset, Alvie Singer is in great pain about losing Annie. Then the rest of the film is his exhaustive examination of their relationship to figure out what went wrong. We experience with him his gradual insights about exactly how and why the relationship failed. By the end, he has come to a place of acceptance about it, and even gained a new perspective. Talk about truth and courage. That’s what makes that screenplay great.
Overall, Woody Allen’s screenplays are very rich, self-assured and internally consistent, with barely a wasted moment. They are also highly intelligent without being self-conscious. Their charm, rather, is in the self-deprecation they express. And this one is no exception.
I suspect, however, with this one he just wasn’t interested in going into a deep character study. At this point in his career, that is his prerogative. He was more interested in talking about bald materialism and empty information. I’m sure it was not unintentional on his part that, in the end, Gil decides he will have to live in Europe to be an artist.
While I love the film for the reminders that Woody Allen is using it to give us, Midnight in Paris is not among his greatest screenplays. Nor was it the best in its original screenplay category this year. Oddly, the Oscar win in a way further supports the film’s premise that we live in a superficial time. If the academy were at all interested in rewarding truth and courage, they’d have given more weight to contenders such as Margin Call and A Separation.
But maybe the awarding of this film should really be attributed to all those academy-voting Hollywood screenwriters who wish they’d stayed in Paris to write novels, too.
You can watch Midnight In Paris on the following Video On Demand websites: