Woody Allen’s latest feature, Midnight in Paris, takes a time travel trip to the city of light and the age of aesthetic modernism. Gil Prender (Owen Wilson) rubs shoulders with his heroes – literary ones, but also spends time with painters and even filmmakers of the future. He parties with raving alcoholics F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, seeks advice from Ernest Hemingway, Getrude Stein reads his work-in-progress and Salvador Dalí’s mad ramblings baffle him completely.
Hemingway (who talks exactly as he writes) tells Gil that he should never show his work to another writer because they’re a jealous breed. The only person Papa trusts is Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). In one comic scene, Stein tells Gil she’s off to an auction of Matisse paintings and thinks aloud over whether 500 francs is a good price for the artist’s work. Gil asks if he can come along and get maybe ‘five or six’. Although it’s a very humorous moment, the fact is Matisse’s work was sold for peanuts compared to their multi-million dollar worth today. By this period, money had not quite yet made its pernicious influence on art.
Despite being the finest comedy Allen has made for a long time, the film seeks to explore our romantic yearnings and feelings for nostalgia and asks if we’re so obsessed about the past, how can we ever forge the future? This is a great question. Gil is writing a novel on this very subject and one senses it tortures him spiritually. From what we learn about his book, which isn’t much, the main character runs a nostalgia shop. He’s literally surrounded by old things day in, day out. Yet these nicknacks and objets d’art can carry a weight of psychic history and meaning.
Gil idolises and obsesses over the 1920s modernist period. He wants to spend his days in Paris soaking up the atmosphere – not go shopping. Allen comically transplants his character to learn a valuable lesson that if he’s to become a literary great then he must stop living in the past – quite literally. The time traveller might be having a swell time hobnobbing with artists, but none of them are living in the past – they are far more interested in defining a brand new future for their art and discussing what it means to be human in the post-industrialised world. This is a key theme of modernist art in all forms. It formed a reaction against the masses and the horror of the Great War. Reality and order could function on a host of levels. Symbolist poetry, futurism, Dadaism and psychoanalysis laid the foundations for the modernists to build upon.
Gil longs for Paris like a haunted lover. It is a lost memory, a feeling which cannot be shook off. He tells his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her friend Paul (Michael Sheen) that he’d love to acquire an attic room with a skylight and live a bohemian existence. “All that’s missing is the tuberculosis,” Paul replies. The modern day characters openly mock day-dreamer Gil at every turn.
It’s interesting too how Allen sticks closely to the ex-pats. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Man Ray, Cole Porter and Stein all represent Gil’s idealised life. Americans living the high life in Paris. This is not really the true bohemian quality of, say, Henry Miller or Irish writer James Joyce.
Joyce’s omission from Midnight in Paris is quite remarkable. Although he wrote two of the greatest modernist texts – Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – he was a poor man always on the cusp of abject poverty who made a career out of leeching off rich friends. Yet Adriana (Marion Cotillard) does echo a sentiment to Gil once made about Joyce, by his wife, that “artists are like children.”
Joyce was only ever capable of living for his work despite his great love of family. He’d tried to be a working stiff, first as a language teacher then a bank clerk then back to teaching again. The First World War saw him as a refugee in Zurich. He took on teaching jobs when he could, but he was now concentrating on unleashing Ulysses. He dedicated his life to forging a new style of literature based on ideas of philosopher William James’ stream-of-consciousness theory. Luckily, rich admirers allowed Joyce to live his life on terms drawn up by him alone. This certainly doesn’t fit with either Allen’s or Gil’s view. Money is a safety net, not really a concern. Joyce did enjoy the finer things in life but others picked up the tab. Self-sufficient he was not.
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