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“Midnight in Paris” and the Summer of Nostalgia Movies

"Midnight in Paris" and the Summer of Nostalgia Movies (photo)

Why Woody Allen's film about the past is his most contemporary movie in years.

The following post contains SPOILERS for “Midnight in Paris.”

Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” isn’t just the director’s funniest and most charming film in years, if not decades. The damn thing is relevant too, a movie all about modern movie culture. Given “Midnight in Paris”‘ subject — a man so obsessed with the past he finds a way to travel back into it — that sounds ironic. But no one and nothing is more obsessed with the past than Hollywood these days, which makes Allen’s wistful, sweet-tempered rebuke to nostalgia a perfectly timed antidote to the summer movie season of 2011.

Yes, of course, Hollywood has mined our shared cultural past for sequels and remakes since before most of us were born. But Hollywood’s summer 2011 slate takes that impulse to an almost comical extreme: practically every movie this summer is based on something from the childhoods of self-obsessed thirtysomething man-children like myself. You can take your pick from movies based on cartoons (“The Smurfs”) or toys (“Transformers”) or theme park rides (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) or long dormant film series (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) or comic books (“X-Men: First Class,” set in the past for double nostalgia). Practically the only part of my youth that hasn’t been strip-mined for recycle cinematic content are breakfast cereal mascots; can a Trix Rabbit live action feature be too far behind? (Please God. Say that it can.)

Even this summer’s original-looking movies from bonafide auteurs are baked in nostalgia; J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8″ is designed as homage to old Steven Spielberg movies. So was Greg Mottola’s “Paul” a few months before that. David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness” was indebted to the R-rated sword-and-sandal fantasy films of the same era. You could even argue that “The Tree of Life” represents the artiest side of the same impulse, as Sean Penn’s character spends the entire movie waxing nostalgic about his childhood in rural Texas, one apparently fashioned on writer/director Terrence Malick’s own.

Just as we’re all drowning in this ocean of nostalgia, Woody Allen throws us a life jacket called “Midnight in Paris.” Its hero is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood hack screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil has grown tired of the Hollywood grind and is working on his first novel, a piece about a man who works in a “nostalgia store” — which, come to think of it, would be an appropriate nickname for any multiplex this summer. Nostalgia is a subject that holds particular appeal for Gil, who’s described by his friends as someone who was born in the wrong time period. Lucky for Gil, Woody Allen’s Paris is a magical place. Every night at the stroke of midnight, an old Peugeot appears to transport Gil back to the 1920s, where he gets to interact with artistic and literary titans like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). Faced with a skeptical fiance and her dreadful friends and family (including a hilarious Michael Sheen as the arrogant intellectual to end all arrogant intellectuals), Gil finds himself increasingly looking forward to his nightly trips back in time, where Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) encouragingly critiques his work, and one of Picasso’s former lovers (Marion Cotillard) finds him witty and innocent and romantic.

I have warned you I am going to SPOIL the end of this movie, so now all bets are off. To this point “Midnight in Paris” sounds guilty of the same nostalgic pandering as every other movie cited in this piece. But Gil eventually learns the ultimate danger of nostalgia: it paralyzes the artist’s mind and calcifies their work into irrelevance. While Gil envisions 1920s as “The Golden Age of Paris,” Cotillard’s Adriana thinks the city’s greatest days are already behind it in 1920; she prefers the Belle Epoque. When another magical cab, this one horse-drawn, gives Adriana the chance to live her Golden age fantasies, she decides to take it, with or without Gil. The film’s finale sees Gil break it off with Inez, not to live in the past with Adriana, but to live in the present without either, content in the knowledge that Paris still looks dazzlingly beautiful in 2011, and that the time he lives in may be less of the root cause of his unhappiness than the company he chooses to keep.

I don’t know how many movies Woody Allen watches these days. I don’t know if he cares about what’s going on in Hollywood. I do know that Allen has, in the past, made some very nostalgic movies like “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Everyone Says I Love You.” So something has changed in Allen’s mind about the subject of nostalgia. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age. Maybe it was sparked by being fed up with all the movies other people are making. Whatever the reason, “Midnight in Paris” feels like it was made by a director in dialogue with his contemporaries. Allen’s not scolding them though. He’s merely illuminating the flaw in their art, if not their business model.

Gil is a very successful screenwriter of crappy movies; I think you can very easily argue that his nostalgic (and financial) obsessions make him exactly the sort of guy who’d make his living writing a movie based on a breakfast cereal mascot. All that’s changed by the end of the film. Allen wants the audience to share Gil’s creative epiphany, and to find art that speaks to who they are now, not the kids they were in 1982. If you walk out of one of these other nostalgia movies feeling unsatisfied, here’s my advice: make it a double feature with “Midnight in Paris.” It’s the perfect amuse-bouche for the rest of the movies out in theaters right now.

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