Monday, August 13, 2012

'Midnight in Paris' and the Trouble with Nostalgia

I know I'm late to the party on this one as well, but I only recently saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and I enjoyed it quite a bit. One of the most provocative aspects the film is that it invites its audience to daydream about which point in history they'd most like to experience. Which is why its so strange to me that I ultimately wound up siding with Michael Sheen's character - the "pedantic" pseudo-intellectual who criticizes the manner in which Owen Wilson's Gil romanticizes the past.

It's probably ridiculous to approach the film's premise with any degree of logic as it's clearly meant to be pure whimsy. This is evident in the way Allen presents the most iconic artists of the 1920s. They're not nuanced or complicated characters - they're the two-dimensional Disney theme park versions of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, etc. They say and do everything you'd want or expect them to, but not much else.

The present day characters are similarly painted in broad strokes. Gil's fiancee Inez, her parents, and her friends are all so incredibly paper thin. This is unusual for Allen, but it didn't bother me in the slightest because it made the film akin to a fairy tale. These supporting characters exist only to contrast against the more vibrant and alluring ones Gil encounters in the past. They're the wicked witch and evil step-sisters. This sort of simplicity is part of the film's charm. I think a more complex exploration of Gil and Inez's relationship would have felt slightly out of place.

And yes - Midnight in Paris DID make me start thinking about where I'd feel most at home and it didn't take more than a few seconds of thought to come to my conclusion - the 1970s. It was, in my estimation, the single greatest decade for film and music (to say nothing of the fascinating cultural climate).

Here's the problem...

There are two ways to experience this point in history and I'm not sure either one would ultimately be all that satisfying. Like I said, I know logic probably has no place in this hypothetical scenario - but I can't help but try and inject some anyway.

I'm a very nostalgic person. I regard my childhood quite fondly and I find it bittersweet to be reminded of all the stuff I grew up with. Who doesn't? I think it's very easy for most of us to think back to "the good 'ol days" and fantasize about the way things used to be.

In order for that to happen in this wish-fulfillment scenario, you have to be transported back with your knowledge of the present (like Gil is). Which leads to problem #1. You know why it wouldn't be all that exciting to hear The Beatles' Let It Be or see Star Wars for the first time? Because I've already done that. Of course it would be thrilling to see Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix perform live and maybe that's reason enough for many to go back - but for me, so much of what's groundbreaking about the art of this era hinges on that initial discovery of it. I can't experience it as its happening. Not really. Because I've already experienced it for the first time in my own way decades after the fact. I can't stand there opening night for Taxi Driver with the appropriate level of anticipation because I already know the film so well.

That same principle essentially applies to any experience I'd try to have. Sure, a pre-AIDS fuckfest while tripping balls sounds great (don't lie... you know it does)... but it'd be very difficult to get caught up in the counter-culture or hippie movement or any of that because I've seen how it ends. It's like reading the last chapter of a book and then starting from the beginning. The journey just isn't as exciting when all you're doing is filling in the blanks from A to B. You have to be oblivious to B. B can't exist yet.

Okay, so what if you go back cold? What if I were suddenly reborn in the 1970s with no memory of ever having been anywhere else? Well, that leads to problem #2 - context. So much of what I appreciate about this era is tied into its historical significance. You don't really get just how remarkable this period in time was without the full picture - which includes what happened in the decades that followed it. You can't truly appreciate the auteur movement in filmmaking until you've seen the way the industry changed after the birth of the blockbuster. There's a whole other level to The Doors or The Who after you've seen how rock music continued to evolve.

Believe me, I lived through the grunge era. That movement was at its peak during my formative years. Did I have any idea history was being made? Absolutely not. It was just kick ass music that spoke to me. I didn't know yet that it was also important. For all intents and purposes, I thought my life (and that decade) was pretty boring and basically sucked.

You know what I bet people my age were saying back in the 70s? How much that decade sucked and how boring everything was. So if I went back cold, I have to imagine my life would wind up feeling a whole lot like the one I'm living now. I'd still be me in a lot of very fundamental ways - I'd just be me in another time.

I suppose this all just a really round about way of saying that Allen had the right idea - nightly excursions that last for a few hours and then transport you back to reality. That's the inherent problem with nostalgia, I guess - you can look in the rear view mirror or watch the road ahead, but you can't do both. The only real reason the past exists in Midnight In Paris is to teach Gil a lesson about his future. Once he learns it, he no longer has a need to continue with the fantasy world.

There's no way Allen isn't aware that he's presenting an idealized version of that era. The same way most of us look back fondly on the romanticized mythology we create from our own memories. They're fun to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.


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