Sunday, April 01, 2012

Midnight in Paris and nostalgia

Marion Cotillard (left) and Owen Wilson in a typical shot from Midnight in Paris. Image found here.

Midnight in Paris (2011; dir. Woody Allen).

Thanks to my colleague (and film buff) Larry the Movie Guy, the Mrs. and I watched Midnight in Paris this past Friday night. The Mrs.' quickie review: "That wasn't as terrible as I had expected." (She had said earlier that she has had trouble understanding Woody Allen films in the past and was afraid this might be the case again with this one.) As for me, I confess to not being too excited about seeing this one; I'd read a positive review last summer that, even so, made its time-warp sequences sound to me, in that precise film-critique term, "flaky." But because I still have yet to see many Woody Allen films and because the first R-rated film I ever saw was Manhattan (I was mesmerized; I'd never seen a film like that before), and because Midnight in Paris was nominated for Best Picture last year, I thought I'd give this one a go.

I liked it, too, though it's not a film I absolutely must own a copy of. But something about it nagged at me and, as I sit here thinking about what nagged at me, I think also that that feeling just may be intentional on the film's part.

T.S. Eliot called London "Unreal city" in "The Waste Land;" that's probably the best way to think of Allen's Paris in the "now" of this film. The film's 4-minute-long opening sequence of shots of Paris progressing from morning to late afternoon, some scenes more familiar than others, all of them looking like images for travel posters, their colors looking a whole like any number of Impressionist paintings you've seen, sets the mood for the rest of the film. This is pretty ironic when you think about it: the Impressionists sought to paint exactly what they saw in the instant that they saw it, unedited. But of course paintings, no matter how spontaneous their creation, are themselves a mediated medium, just as all art is. For those of us whose sole experience of this city comes via photographs and paintings, these images become "Paris" for us; Paris the actual city, where millions of people live and work, not all of them especially happily, recedes from us. Towards the end of the opening sequence, we hear Owen Wilson's Gil Bender in voice-over, waxing rhapsodic about turn-of-the-(20th-)century Paris, and Gil's fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) tells him that he's not in love with a city but with a fantasy, and we'll eventually come to realize that what we've been seeing is Gil's image of what he imagines must have been the ideal time to have been in Paris, not the actual place. (Unless I'm forgetting something, the most contemporary structure we see in the opening sequence is the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre.) We've just been shown a Paris, in other words, that is the result of Gil's fashioning from things he has read and seen of it from a time that he admires.

This post was going to be a bit of a rant about how we have here yet again a film in which Americans glide across the surface of a place, never seeing it on its own terms, for good or for ill; that this film asks us to prefer Gil's culture tourist to Inez's and her parents' (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) chilly, cash nexus-driven engagements with the place, yet Gil's back-in-time midnight perambulations aren't any more genuine. Nor is the desire of the flapper Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) to stay in the warp that deposits her and Gil in the Belle Epoque of late 19th-century Paris. That is, her desire is genuine, but that which she seeks to achieve through its pursuit is not.

As I first thought about this film, I thought it was diving into some pretty, and pretty deep, nostalgia-wallowing. In thinking about it more, though, I see that it pulls out of that dive. These desires for times other than Now, as Gil rather wordily tells Adrianna towards the end of the film, are pursuits of happiness rather than of genuineness--just as Inez in her own way had told him near the beginning of the film. Inez isn't well-suited for Gil, but she knows him better than he knows himself.

I think to say much more would be to spoil some things, so I will stop here. But I will say that Midnight in Paris is a sly meditation on the seductiveness--and, thus, the perils--of nostalgia. Worth seeing, or borrowing from someone.


Doc said...

well, you've piqued my interest. i'll have a go at it late one night.

"(Unless I'm forgetting something, the most contemporary structure we see in the opening sequence is the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre.)"

Which is less than 20 years old, right? in any event it wasn't at louvre back in mublty mubmle when i spent time in europe,

John B. said...

Hey, Doc. Thanks for stopping by.

I know I've recent seen pictures of central Paris with lots of glass-and-steel towers, but there's nary a one of those to be seen in this film. Of course, few people travel to Paris because parts of it look like Houston.

R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the review. It's on the "Things To Do In My Copious Free Time" list.

I've often pondered our (Americans') fascination with just hitting the high spots of places. Which, of course, begs the question of whether it's better to see the high spots of a lot of iconic locations or choose a few and dive in neck deep?

I don't know. I've done a little of both over the years and my dealings with Paris are of the "gliding through" variety, albeit without the cash.


John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Apologies for the delay in responding to your comment. School, you know . . .

I have been thinking about your comment, though. Someday, I'd like to visit "Europe." I certainly don't think of myself as the package-tour sort, but I do see the advantages of doing one of the tours first to get a sense of various cities, and then, on the second (or third or . . . ) visit, plan my own little adventure(s). Your "high spots" approach of a lot of American tourists reminds me of what happens in lots of art museums, especially the bigger ones: People want to see certain paintings with the goal of being able to say they have seen them, as though they are counting coup or collecting scalps, and not because of some deeper engagement that they want to have with the works. Better that than nothing, I suppose, but still--it seems a little consumer-y to me.

As I watched the movie, I found myself thinking about the nature of my relationship with Mexico City. The longest I've ever stayed there is a week, but I have visited it about a dozen times now over the course of almost 30 years. I like to think I know the central section of the city fairly well, but even there I saw new places on my last visit (and since the Mrs. has been with me on the last two trips, her presence alters how I perceive the more familiar things). So, I always feel like a tourist when I visit there. Meanwhile, I confess to having done some occasional musing about what it would be like to live there. When I do muse, though, I'm pretty clear on the idea of living there in the place as it is, and not in some idealized Past that I have read about, as Gil does in the film. But the whole question of whether one is perceiving the city as it is, warts and all, is a vexed one: How does one objectively assess the accuracy of one's perception of a place?

R. Sherman said...

Yeah, to all your remarks.

I've been on package tours, and they're OK, to the extent you describe. It's "high spots," but then I've gone back prowled around by myself. Take the EMBLOS's hometown as an example. I've been there enough, now, after the full tour from the Official Father-in-law on visit number one, that I think I've pretty good sense of it. With Paris, I've seen the "touristy things," though we did spend a long time in the Egypt room of the Louvre.

I think we hit the "check the box" places to fall in love with one or two to go back and explore more.

As for "objectively assessing one's sense of place," I don't think it's possible beyond that place one calls "home." We (at least we "flyover Americans") are connected to a geographic area. We have a space we call "home." It's the land, ugly or beautiful. It's part of us.

Too bad I'm on indefinite blogging hiatus, or this comment could turn into a post.


John B. said...

As for "objectively assessing one's sense of place," I don't think it's possible beyond that place one calls "home." We (at least we "flyover Americans") are connected to a geographic area. We have a space we call "home." It's the land, ugly or beautiful. It's part of us.

Yes. This is John Graves' Goodbye to a River territory. Except for my visits to Austin, my birthplace, I tend to feel "at home" pretty much wherever I've been, but even in Mexico City, as often as I've visited, I don't feel genuinely connected to it. Part of that surely has to do with my internal knowledge that I'm not staying for long, but most of it is that I have no tie to the place. My forebears aren't buried in its soil. Multiple visits, no matter how pleasant, are not ties.

Sorta off-topic: Now that I've finished Battle Cry of Freedom, I'll be starting up another Graves-like book, William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth. It's about a place about 50 miles east of here, a place equally filled with its own louts as Graves' upper Brazos River is.

R. Sherman said...

Least-Heat Moon's book is great. I also loved the PBS documentary on it.


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