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“Midnight in Paris” and the Summer of Nostalgia Movies

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

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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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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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