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Scene from Midnight in Paris. (YouTube video uploaded by Petrichor Allegory)
Approximately 60 jaw-dropping images make up the opening collage for Woody Allen’s celebrated masterwork, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. As the sound of jazz great Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” (“If You See My Mother”) engages your ears with its rhapsodic meandering soprano saxophone tones, viewers are treated to images of Paris’s great Seine River, diners at sidewalk cafes, the Eiffel Tower bold against a bright blue sky and then again lit up brilliantly at night, the Arc de Triomphe in full unyielding splendor, streets filled with passersby and streets made enchanted by the splatter of rain. In short, the montage provides the kind of eye candy on which travelers and movie goers love to feast. It also lets viewers know that just as there are many layered facets to the enduring charms and enigma of Paris, the same is true of Allen’s film.
Paris not only functions as the perfect muse for the writer/director, but provides the exceptional context in which Allen explores variations on such thematic dynamics as: academic ambition versus individual creative passion, artistic vision in contrast with institutional commercialism, and the cultural glories of the past in relation to personal identities in the present. Heavy concerns like these would likely prove overbearing were it not for the actors who bring Allen’s script so vigorously to life. Owen Wilson as the accomplished but frustrated script writer Gil Pinder, Rachel McAdams as his fiancé Inez, Michael Sheen as the “pedantic” academic Paul, Marion Cotillard as Adriana, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, and more than two dozen other luminous talents animate the movie with inspired performances.
Having made a name for himself in such offbeat (and very successful) comedies as Zoolander and Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson is not an actor most might have pictured as a leading man in a Woody Allen film. That may in fact be the reason he fits the role of Gil Pinder so well. Any number of parallels exists not only between Wilson and his character, but between him, his character, and Woody Allen as well. Particularly notable is the fact that Wilson got his start in Hollywood as co-author (and co-star) of the 1996 film Bottle Rocket. Although several of scripts since then have made it to the screen, the greater part of his creative labors seems to have been dedicated to acting. When, as the character Gil, he complains that he’s “having trouble because I’m a Hollywood hack who never gave literature a real shot,” it’s not difficult to imagine the real-world actor Wilson contemplating a similar self criticism. Nor is it hard to picture Woody Allen considering the same words while imagining himself as a great novelist instead of the great filmmaker that he is.
What Gil seems to need more than anything else is inspiration and motivation to complete his latest attempt at a novel. In Paris courtesy of his future father-in-law’s business, he decides that a longer stay or even a permanent move to the city might be exactly what he needs to intensify his creative drive. Inez, her parents, and her former professor Paul (on whom she admits initially to having once had a crush and later admits quite a bit more) considers Gil’s idea ludicrous escapism. When Gil expresses his admiration for 1920s Paris, Paul, who is in the city to lecture at the Sorbonne, tells him he is suffering from a malady known as “Golden age thinking,” or an attachment to nostalgia so extreme that it amounts to a denial of the realities and values of the present. What Paul has no way of anticipating is an actual Golden Age experience that Gil has when he takes a walk through Paris “round about midnight” and finds himself transported to the era of his dreams.
How is this possible? It could be that it’s not and Gil is simply hallucinating or it could be that Paris has cast a true spell that takes him back in time. Whatever the case (we get a definitive clue from the fate of a detective hired to follow Gil) he soon finds himself partying with literary icons F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), talking intellectual shop with Ernest Hemingway, receiving a critique on his manuscript from Gertrude Stein, and falling in love with the mysteriously alluring Adriana. The zig and zag between the past and the present provides Gil with new insights and opportunities as well as new dilemmas. From Hemingway he receives this powerful advice: "You'll never write well if you fear dying." And Gertrude Stein informs him that “The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence." How it all plays out is pure Woody Allen film magic.
Since Annie Hall in 1977, Allen has written and/or directed at least one movie every year and NERO FIDDLED is currently scheduled for release in 2012. One of the great geniuses of contemporary cinema, one might say he is currently enjoying a kind of Golden Age of his own. With Midnight in Paris, he fantastically weaves together threads of existential angst, philosophical puzzles, and inspiring literary history to produce a movie that is at once an instant classic unto itself and a superb addition to the celebrated body of his work.
author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and The River of Winged Dreams