Friday, July 1, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's Inception

Woody Allen’s latest – Midnight in Paris – holds a special place in my heart, and I suspect in the heart of anybody who’s ever wanted to be a writer. For all of us deluded romantic writers, there was inevitably a time in our lives (typically right after college) when we contemplated moving to Paris and devoting our lives to living in a garret, soaking up the art and atmosphere of Paris, and producing the great American novel, in the tradition of all those great American expatriates of the Twenties: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.

Allen takes this writer’s conceit and makes it come true – but in a uniquely Woody Allen fashion. As in movies like Purple Rose of Cairo or Alice, Allen taps into his unique brand of Magical Realism, where characters' fantasies come alive only to illustrate the silliness of their neuroses. In this case, the fantasy of the writer (Gil, played by Owen Wilson)- who finds Paris thrillingly romantic while his fiancé and her Republican parents find it simply noisy, irritating, and a mall for expensive souvenirs and show-ground for pompous ex-boyfriends – comes true precisely at midnight each night. It’s at this bewitching hour when a carriage comes past a quaint old street corner, beckons for the writer to get in, and transports him, temporarily, into the past, where he gets to hobnob with the romantic greats: the actual Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and more (including some humorous appearances by surrealists like Dali and Brunuel).

All this happens at night and the writer increasingly finds validation in the passions, inspirations, and energy of his past companions, while increasing the tensions with his alienated fiancé and her insipid parents. While the characters from the past are perfectly impersonated and the scenes of Paris nightlife in the Twenties are perfectly rendered, the present conflict with Gil’s girlfriend and parents feels particularly flat and uninspired, the usual Woody Allen schtick about unhappy relationships and people who really aren’t meant to be together.

It’s no surprise when one of the characters in Gil’s fantasy of the twenties herself has a fantasy about an older artistic time – the Belle Epoque – and like the movie Inception, convinces Gil to travel another level down into the dream into yet another level of romantic delusions. One can imagine Allen watching the movie Inception and thinking, “I know what to do for my next film.”

The real star of this movie, however, is Paris itself. Woody has become the chronicler of great international cities – giving us the creativity of New York, the class formality of London. And clearly, the romanticism of Paris. Allen opens his films with a series of still shots of Paris scenery, taking us through an entire day – including a rainstorm, sights of deserted street corners and parks, and finally the falling night and bright lights on the Champs Elysee. Each shot is held long enough for us to detect the life slowly moving in the background. They are small works of art, like the moments of time spent in the city itself. When the writer debates life and art with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, he comes to understand why this city has so inspired so many artists before him.

Like his other magical realist yarns, this one too gets tied up in a nice little bow, and everything resolves neatly in the end. For those of us who aren’t writers, the Inception twist will seem a little predictable, and the relationship tensions flat. For those of us whose memories are jogged by Allen’s exploration of this perennial romantic writer’s notion, the guest starring artistic celebrities will give us the same thrill as they do for Gil, and Allen’s movie may be the best expression ever rendered of the particular romantic fantasy that is Paris.

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