In the Venn Diagram of Woody Allen films, there are great ones, and there are new ones. The overlap between the two is very small indeed. Midnight in Paris is almost exclusively within that overlap. In the film, Owen Wilson’s Gil is a Hollywood hack script doctor who yearns for a more fulfilling creative life. To this end he has travelled to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, back in full on Mean Girls bitch mode) to fine tune a novel he has written. He posits that times were better in the 1920s and, in a manner never explained (for explanation would be unnecessary), is transported back to the 20s, where he meets figures such as F Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali (in which role Adrien Brody nearly steals the whole film). The interesting point that Allen makes is that, in the 20s, Gil meets Adrienne (the ever ethereal Marion Cotillard) who feels that La Belle Epoque was the true golden age in which she is desirous to live. This idea of always looking backwards, always wanting what we don’t – indeed, can’t – have: it’s absolutely indicative of how so many of us live today.
I’ve done it. If I’d been born a hundred years before I actually was, I would quite possibly have been one of the musicians that played the scores to silent films. That, and fought in World War I, most probably. But this idea of “wouldn’t it be nice to have lived in … because of … “ is highly seductive, and it keeps us away from now. Here. To prefer a different time is to underappreciate one’s own: this is both unproductive and self-deceiving. It is a game of selective memory. For all the idealistic creative minds that lived in, for this instance, the 1920s, the medical conditions alone were drastically inferior to current practises. We focus on the negative aspects of our own time, our own existence, only to ignore them in the idealised vision in our minds of this past time. We focus on these past positives and forget the present ones. It’s the measure of hindsight that allows us to judge the past and see what remains. It is that same sense that makes us go, “wait a sec…” when someone decrees a film a classic upon its release. The distancing quality time gives all things has not been allowed to make its mark. Very, very occasionally a film shines through to show that it is one to be remembered. There Will Be Blood springs to mind. The joke that artists are never appreciated in their time is a cliché because of a kernel of truth within. The weight of expectation of “now” brings with it a seed of doubt, of scepticism. And this in turn leads to the consideration of comparison between the unfairly-maligned now, and the rose-tinted past.
Allen’s film initially contrasts the idea of living in the now – Gil’s fiancée is shallow, happy for him to sell his soul for big bucks, and live in Malibu – with an idealised vision of living in the past. Gil is happy just walking in the rain in Paris. It’s a forced, flawed comparison, and realised as such by the close of the film. To live, to really live, it does no good to live in the past. To be disassociated from the world around you, you might miss something real, Something tangible and lasting. And, by the end of the film, this epiphany is made beautifully clear. Live in the past, and miss the present.