Keeping it Real

by wjw on August 4, 2011

A few days ago I saw Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s new movie.  All the reviews told me how wonderful and magical it was, and the last movie the Woodmeister made in Paris, Everyone Says I Love You, actually was wonderful and magical, so I went to see it.

I was reasonably charmed by Midnight in Paris, but I have to say that the movie’s focus stayed resolutely on all the wrong characters.  This is a fantasy film in which a modern writer travels back to Paris in the 1920s to meet Scott, Zelda, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, and Bunuel— and y’know what?  They’re all a lot more interesting than the hero, and I wish the movie were about them.

The historical characters were played wonderfully by some very good actors— Kathy Bates and Adrian Brody, for two— and they were often very funny.   I wish Allen had just forgotten about his protagonist altogether and just put the whole movie in the 1920s.  A Woody Allen version of Alan Ruldoph’s The Moderns?  I’d totally pay to see that.

Allen forgot that fantasy needs a very strong reality anchor in order for it to work.  If you look at the paintings of Dali, for example, you’ll see that all the elements, surrealistic in juxtaposition, are rendered with an absolute photorealism.  The landscapes are often real landscapes, just put in places where landscapes don’t always belong.

I believed in Allen’s 1920s— they were marvelously rendered, if often in a comic style.   (His pontificating Hemingway is a wonderfully deadpan case in point.)  But Allen’s modern story is completely unreal— it had to do with rich people who don’t have to work for a living and who stay in a marvelous five-star hotel and have nothing to do but eat wonderful food and wander around Paris.

Does Woody Allen no longer know anyone who has an actual job?  These people seemed adrift from reality, just as were the people in the awful Vicky Christina Barcelona, the only Woody Allen movie where I stopped watching after 20 minutes.

The protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who condemns himself as a hack and wants only to write perfect little literary novels.  I didn’t believe for an instant that he was a screenwriter, or indeed any kind of writer at all.   He simply never cared about any of the stuff that writers care about, or talked about any of the stuff that writers talk about.  Nor do I believe that a successful screenwriter, at whom important people regularly hurl big steamer trunks full of money, depends for his entire self-esteem on writing a novel.   (Surely Woody Allen actually knows screenwriters.  Doesn’t he?)

Our hero’s involved with a woman so unsuitable that I don’t know why he hasn’t simply pushed her off the balcony.  (She’s someone who thinks that Paris is about Shopping, not about Art.)   When he gets to the 1920s he has a wispy sort of romance with Marion Cotillard.  It’s a part that wastes Ms. Cotillard’s talents, but I’m always happy to see her, so what the hell.

There is a small part for Carla Bruni, who is of course the First Lady of France.  She seems a bit bemused by it all, as if she’s wondering what these Americans are yelling about.

One of the things I tell my students is that any fantastic element has to be firmly anchored in reality— if not precisely our reality, then some reality.   Otherwise you can end up wandering in a strange city at night, lost in time, and likely at any moment find yourself in the Seine.

Erich Schneider August 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I liked that Ms. Bruni was cast as a museum guide, so she’s essentially an ambassador for French culture – although that’s a bit funny given that she’s Italian by birth. Plus she gets to say “what that overly pedantic American said about Rodin was wrong” – an echo of the Marshall McLuhan scene in “Annie Hall”.

Steve Stirling August 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Picasso once said that poseurs talked about the philosophy of art, art students talked about composition, and real painters talked about where you could get good brushes, cheap.

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