Monday, May 29, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


An old saw says that there is nothing new under the sun, and in the realm of ideas for fiction it is doubtless true.

I recently had vivid proof of this idea.

A couple of years back, a good friend of mine sang the praises of Woody Allen’s light comedy Midnight in Paris (made in 2011), which he had just seen. He said it had a most original idea.

We recently got around to seeing this souffle on Netflix. Midnight in Paris is a very simple and frothy affair. A blocked American writer (played by Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee and her unpleasant parents. It is clear that fiancee is tiring of writer and their relationship is slowly deflating. Blocked writer really wants to get on with his novel, while fiancee and parents want him to stick with profitable hackwork as a scriptwriter.

Then one midnight something magical happens. Mooching around the backstreets of Paris on his own, the writer is whisked back to Paris in the 1920s, and rubs shoulders with the “lost generation” of deracinated American writers. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. They give him advice on how to write. He also gets to meet deracinated Spaniards like Picasso and Dali and Luis Bunuel. In fact in one scene, he suggests to Bunuel that he make a movie about people trapped in a room from which they cannot escape – and when you get to such lines, you appreciate that the film is made in part for smartarses like me and you, who will at once congratulate themselves on getting the reference and knowing what film is being referred to (oh very well, unlettered one – its Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel). Man Ray, Cole Porter, T.S.Eliot and others have briefer walk-on bits.

This is the romantic American tourist version of Paris through and through, with golden-filtered shots of the city in both the present and the 1920s past. Of course blocked writer (in the present) gets to meet a soulmate – a young Frenchwoman who is as obsessed with 1920s Paris as he is and who in the end wanders off with him to a romantic finish under romantic Parisian rain.

But what was this very original idea that my friend perceived in the film?

Well, despite its being a wallow in nostalgia for a past age, Midnight in Paris contains at least one discreet warning against the folly of indulging in nostalgia. When he is in the 1920s, the film’s hero meets an attractive Frenchwoman who says how bored she is in the 1920s, and how she wishes she were living in the more interesting Belle Epoque (the 1890s or thereabouts). So there is a sequence in which the hero and said woman are whisked back even further to a café where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec and company.

Moral? In every age, some people will always find an imagined past preferable to the real present.

My trouble was, I would have found this idea more ingenious if I hadn’t met it before.

Back in 2006 I had a temporary lectureship at the University of Otago and – separated from wife and family – I whiled away a lot of my evenings by plundering the university’s film library and watching “classics” which I had not hitherto seen. My preferences were for old Italian, German and especially French films.

So one evening I got to see Rene Clair’s Les Belles de Nuit (made in 1952).

It too is a souffle-light and frothy piece of nonsense. Gerard Philipe plays a piano-teacher who aspires to be a composer; but every time he wants to get down to business, he is distracted by noises from the street (a jackhammer, a motorbike being revved up etc.) How he wishes he lived in a more leisurely era. One day, while teaching piano stiudents, he falls asleep and dreams he is in the Belle Epoque, where the delightful Martine Carol witnesses his great success as a composer. Later he dreams himself back into the earlier era of Louis Philippe, where he is part of the army conquering Algeria and he gets to meet the delightful Gina  Lollobrigida. And later he goes back to the French Revolution and gets to meet the delightful Magali Vendeuil. And so on and so on.

And in each and every age there is an old codger who insists that life used to be more attractive and gracious “back in the good old days” – which always leads the hero to regress back to yet another ultimately disappointing earlier era. The film has a darker strain in it too – in each age, twists of the plot turn the idealised imagined past into a place of terror. The hero’s musical composition is booed in the Belle Epoque, he faces the firing squad in the age of Louis Philippe and the guillotine in the French Revolution.

Moral? Daydreaming about the past varnishes over the negative realities of the past. Nostalgia is a process by which we pick out only those parts of the past that we find attractive, ignoring the complex grind of everyday life that exists in every age.
I do wonder if Woody Allen saw this film before he made Midnight in Paris.

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