Here is a movie that speaks to my heart. If I ever have prolonged hallucinations or flights into madness, I would like them to consist of hanging out with Hemingway, Picasso, T. S. Eliot and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920s Paris. Like the protagonist of Midnight in Paris, Gil, 1920s Paris is my ‘ideal’ imaginary period in the past, which I have often escaped to in my mind. However unlike him, I have not had the privilege of visiting it through a time-travelling car at the stroke of midnight.
This all sounds very lovely and improbable, and that’s how the film sucks you in. But I think at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is not a naive escapism into a romanticised past, but rather a critique of nostalgia. As a writer, I understand Gil’s impulse to look to the past as a more favourable time for creativity. Being a writer is such a thankless job, you often feel as if the world just doesn’t want you around and thinks that what you do is an utter waste of time. We also live in a time now where everything seems to be consumed rapidly, leaving little room for the kind of contemplative space required for both writing and reading. Yes, ideas are shut down quickly now because we have so many deadlines. And yes, a cynical roll of the eye is often the result of having ‘intellectual’ discussions that were perhaps greeted with enthusiasm and an open mind a few decades ago. But the thing is, we don’t live in the past, and we don’t really know what it realistically would have been like to live in it.
As much as we are made to sympathise with Gil in his desire for a seemingly ‘better’ past, it’s ultimately his realisation that the present is to be lived in that ties the film together. Nostalgia is a wonderful dalliance for him, but it’s also presented as thoroughly questionable. And to me, Gil’s realisation is also a critique of other films that wallow in a romanticised nostalgia about the past. I love costume and historical dramas, but what I also find interesting from a critical perspective is the way that such films ‘sanitise’ the past into picture-perfect ‘postcard’ images. I suspect the reason why Midnight in Paris begins with a series of prolonged postcard-like shots of Paris is to draw our attention to this highly idealised mode of nostalgia in the cinema.
But it’s not just nostalgia about the past which is debunked, but also nostalgia in the present. Gil’s prosaic fiancé, Inez, acts as a counterpart to his own sensibility. She is all about the present and her interest in the past and the city of Paris lies in the way she can consume both. For her, things have a practical and monetary value, and this ties in well with the idea that modern tourists are perhaps romanticising popular cities like Paris as a series of ‘experiences’ and ‘images’ that can be bought and sold. Her view of Paris is equally ‘sanitising’, as she tries to ‘clean away’ the disagreeable aspects (such as the rain) and interpret the city as a pretty playground.
I couldn’t help thinking of all the blogs that do the same thing. We’ve all seen the countless images of a very pretty Paris on blogs, and as much as these images are appealing, they also paint a somewhat unrealistic idea of Paris. No doubt, those who actually live in Paris have shitty days like the rest of us, and don’t experience the city as a perfect terrain of beauty. Because there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ city to live in, just like there’s no such thing as an ideal period to live in. Gil realises this, and by the end of the film, tries to live in the present in a way that best suits him.
I have to say, I had a bit of a personal revelation moment watching this film. I’m sure this revelation would have come to me regardless, so I think it was a matter of good timing. I watched Midnight in Paris at my brother’s place in Melbourne, the night before I flew back home to Perth. I was feeling down about returning to Perth, mainly because in my short visit I began to realise the lack of opportunities for me as a writer back at home, when compared to Melbourne. As an ‘outsider’ looking in, I realised that writers who live, work and have studied in Melbourne have connections that I simply do not have. I felt like the dream of a writing career just became even harder, like I have to play constant catch-up.
My revelation was that I’ll probably always be doing writing ‘on the side’ rather than as a full-time job. I’ve been stressing myself out so much about what I want to achieve career-wise, that I haven’t stopped to examine my dreams realistically. I felt, for the first time, at ease with the idea that my writing may simply be a personal dream rather than an actual career. That doesn’t mean I won’t fight for it and try my hardest, but it does mean I will try to balance this desire for a writing career in a healthier manner with the rest of my life. As Gil walked in the rain in the last scene of Midnight in Paris, I felt a small lifting of a burden from my shoulders, and I thought how amazing it was that some films just come into your life at precisely the right moment. So this movie endeared itself to me on many levels. It was by no means perfect, but it’s the first Woody Allen film I’ve enjoyed for quite a while as I’m not usually a fan of his mode of storytelling. I’m interested to hear what other people think of this film though – has anyone seen it?